Drash (Weekly Torah Portion Commentary)
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of October 13, 2018
The Tower of Babel, alliteration built into the name of the story. It is after the Flood. The earth once again has become populated, but the memory of the evil that precipitated the Flood lives in God’s memory and the impulse of men that led to the evil has not disappeared from the face of the earth. And though humans have reproduced enough to be nations, as we learned from the preceding chapter, yet do they strive to become one. One language and one speech, as it says in the Torah, and they congregated in the plain of Shinar and sought to build not only a city, but also a tower that reached unto the heavens. Then we shall have a name, they told themselves. But the Lord saw what they were up to and took fright, for He saw that men had it in them to want to dominate the world and occupy His place. And so He told His minions that they should go down and confound the people by confounding their language, dividing them into different groups by virtue of the different languages they speak. Then, unable to speak one language, they shall have difficulty building their tower. And so it was. The Lord confounded their speech and men left off building their city and scattered across the earth. And the name of the city, like the name of the tower, was known as Babel, a name with a double consonant – babel – because the Lord there confounded their speech, the verb for confounded in Hebrew – balal – also having a double consonant, and both words containing the same letters.
The story is short, but exquisitely told. Every word reverberates with its own echo in Hebrew. Let us brick the bricks and burn the burnt, for we have the bricks for stone and the material for mortar. Humans suffer from difference. They want union. Even the one language they speak reflects this. But God knows that when He created the world he brought difference into existence, and the humans he made in His image have to learn to live with that difference, hard though it may be. Indeed, that is the source of their trouble, both as individuals and as nations. The desire to become one is a form of the will to power, a feint to hide behind the longing to unite the desire to dominate. So it is in love; so it is in politics. In the end the will to power becomes the desire to occupy the place of God Himself, symbolized in this story by the tower men would build as high as the heavens. But the story of Genesis is the story of that impossibility. Men and women were created in God’s image, but they are not God. Without that inaccessible place above and different from them there is nothing to restrain human passions from going berserk. Hence the reversal of biology in the story of the creation of man and woman. Man is born of woman, but men and women are both born of God. Hence God’s question to Adam in the Garden: where are you? Do not try to occupy My place, God is telling him, but learn to occupy yours, in truth and dignity for you and the others you share this earth with. For those who are still mindful of the horrors of totalitarianism the twentieth century witnessed, this story of the Tower of Babel is easily understandable. For those who are not, it remains a parable to be unraveled and a lesson to be heeded. And these days it seems the latter is more needed than ever.
The telling of the story is brief in the extreme, but its power remains contained in the language itself, as is typical of the stories of the Torah. This power is evident in the original Hebrew with the constant alliteration. Not only in verse 3 with the bricks and the burning and mortar, but also in verse 5, with the phrase which the children of men builded, a phrase which the Hebrew transliteration would read: asher banu benei adam. And in the following verse we find echoes of God’s work in Genesis with the words referring to beginning and to doing. And in the ninth and final verse, as already mentioned, we have the juxtaposition yet repetition of Babel and balal, as if to say: you change a consonant and you destroy a tower and bring difference back into the world. Alliteration as subversion, repetition as contradiction, the Torah’s tricks of the trade whose text so succinct always invites interpretation, weaving into the language itself the moral tale of difference, asking the reader to find for himself or herself the place where truth does lie and on what side of the tale he or she stands. Where are you? all over again. In short, language itself becomes the stepping stone to interpretation, just as misunderstanding leads to conversation, no short cuts allowed. Not even a tower reaching unto the heavens.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of October 6, 2018
Where are you? That is the great question God asks Adam after he has eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The question is so ironical the reader can do naught but laugh. Is not God omnipresent? Does He need x-ray glasses to know where Adam is? And does He not know how lame the response to His question shall be? For Adam does not say: here I am. Instead he already offers excuses. I heard Your voice, Adam says, but I was afraid because I was naked, and so I hid in the garden. And the Lord then asks him rhetorically if he had eaten of the fruit of the tree He has forbidden him to eat. And again Adam answers evasively. Not yes, I ate it, but the woman you gave to me as a helpmeet gave it to me, fobbing responsibility off onto her. And when God asks her what she has done, she sloughs responsibility off onto the snake, who, cunning though he was, was also bored out of his tree and so set something different rolling as God had done when there was nothing but a formless void in the world.
God asks Adam the question: where are you? because that is the question every man and woman must ask themselves. The punishments that come down upon the man, the woman and the snake are exactly what would have happened anyway in the course of human evolution. Nor are the man and woman chastised for frolicking in the garden naked as the day they were born, for sex between humans is as natural as the air they breathe and the sun that shines in the garden that incites it, just as the Lord Himself is wont to walk in the garden He created in the cool of the day, as the Torah says. No, the key to the whole story is precisely the question God puts to Adam: where are you? It is the same question He will put to Cain in the following chapter, this time in the form of where is Abel your brother? And again the question is one to which God already knows the answer, but He is asking Cain, as He asks Adam, to think about what he has done, to think, as the sages put it, before whom he stands, to consider his place in the world and how he will occupy it. And it is the same question Moses will put to the children of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy when he reminds them their choice is always between life and death, blessing and curse, and cautions them to choose wisely.
Where are you is also what are you doing and how will you lead your life. And the setup in what others have called the fall from grace is only the stage setting for what happens to every man and woman once they are born and come into consciousness of the world and their lonely place within it: how will you react to the bewilderment you discover when you find out your apartness from the world and other human beings? How will you react in the face of the pleasures and disappointments of life as you walk thought its storms, of which sexual congress is emblematic because it is the most explosive, the most intense, the most volatile of such encounters? Will you run to cover the nakedness of your passions with fig leaves? Will you fob responsibility for your actions off onto the nearest figure convenient at hand, man onto wife, child onto parent or sibling, humans onto any snake in the grass that will do? Or will you open your eyes and reflect back onto your experience, learn from it, and assume responsibility for what you have done so that your desires, your passions, your convictions will produce something approximating the Garden of Eden rather than hell on earth? This is the great message running throughout the Torah, a question before it is an answer, a story with its offer of a law, a tree of life for us humans in place of the tree of life that stands in Eden protected by the flaming sword of the cherubim from the presumption of an unreflecting life.
Commentary on the Torah reading for Simchat Torah of October 2, 2018
Parashat Vezot Habracha
Moses commanded us a law, An inheritance for the congregation of Jacob. At the very outset of this Torah reading Moses and Jacob are linked, as are the blessings which each one gave his descendants at the end of his life. Jacob’s blessing is still the thundering of the wayward father at his wayward sons, hoping in spite of all that transpired that the blessing inherited from his father will work its way down to his sons and the sons of his sons unto the end of time. Five centuries later Moses picks up the mantle and issues a blessing of his own, this time not to a family rent by sibling rivalries, but to a nation in the making formed out of the tribes of families the sons of Jacob have become.
And how is this nation to be formed? How move from a kinship-based society to a national one? No easy task, Moses well knew, as forty years of wandering in the desert painfully taught him. The challenges to his leadership were rooted in the sibling rivalries of a tribal grouping, cousins challenging cousins for leadership and honor. Instead Moses offered them a brilliant innovation. I will take the congregation of Israel, this tribal confederacy of Jacob’s descendants, and weld them into a nation by teaching them a law that shall rule their lives in the land that is destined for them, promised to their forefathers by God Himself. Thus does the Torah say Moses commanded us a law, An inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.
And though the next verse states there was a king in Jeshurun when the tribes of Israel gathered together, even the kings were subordinate to the law, as Moses had reminded them in a previous discourse. When you come into the land you shall read the law, every seven years you shall read it, and the kings shall carry a copy of it with them always and read it, that the compact between ruler and ruled shall be bound by the law which is above all. How important then that this law became a written document, one that could be copied and read by any literate, and whose statutes could serve as the basis for challenging the ruler when he strayed. Thus did Nathan the prophet challenge David the king. Thus millennia later did Martin Luther challenge the Pope. Thus still do people challenge the cruel and capricious ways of rulers who ride roughshod over the elementary rules of right and wrong bequeathed to humanity by this text. As for the Jews, thus did Moses weld the congregation of Jacob into the nation of Israel.
But did the attempt succeed? Have the Jews not balked at making the move, even with all the trappings of a state now reconstituted in modern Israel? How much of that country still operates along the lines of family, with an electoral system that encourages political horse-trading between tiny single-interest parties reminiscent of family gatherings at Hannukah? Do not Jews world-wide set up communities run like congregations, proud of the fact that we are all members of the tribe, bound by all the good and the bad of family ties? And does not the mentality of a family still reign in the conduct of Jewish public affairs, as if Korach and Moses were still arguing about who is more honorable, more worthy of admiration, and who merits beings cast out and vilified? From synagogue politics to Israeli television the long arm of the family still exerts its influence, such that one can legitimately wonder if the Jews have ever left the Book of Genesis, let alone Egypt.
That is the secret link between Moses and Jacob, Deuteronomy and Genesis, encapsulated in that tiny phrase: Moses commanded us a law, An inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. The phrase is also a wish and a hope, that the Jews may move from tribe to nation, from passions to law, and the blessing that Moses conferred upon his assembled Israelites in this, his last address to them. May the congregation become a nation, may the nation live in its sovereign land, and may the nation in its land be ruled by law and not by wounded honor. As for those who refuse the blessing and seek to liquidate the nation, its people and the law it received as an inheritance, may the Jews deal with them with all the severity that Moses warned they would have to exercise to keep the covenant and inherit the blessing. And may the Jews understand that in the exercise of their national sovereignty they have nothing to apologize for, but everything to be proud of: this book, this land, which is their book and their land, one they have been bequeathed as a blessing and which they have bequeathed to any who can read as a blessing in turn.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 22, 2018
Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; And let the earth hear the words of my mouth. Moses is no longer addressing the children of Israel, at least not directly. He is speaking to God, to the wind, to the heavens and the earth in God’s name, bereft of hope that the Israelites will listen to his warnings and teachings. What more can I do, he thinks, but announce the word of the Lord to the eternal witness of His Being, for did He not say that as long as heat and cold and summer and winter abide on the earth He shall not rain destruction down upon it? And yet of destruction does he speak, when the Israelites break faith and their land is consumed by their enemies and even their enemies are consumed by the wrath and judgment of the Lord. Thus speaks the prophet at his wits’ end. Thus speaks the prophet who would impress upon his audience the gravity and import of the matters at hand.
The secret things belong to the Lord, Moses told his audience a short time ago. But now he is pushing the boundaries of the unrevealed, turning political wisdom into prophecy, legal teachings into warnings, tapping into the terrible and majestic power of biblical poetry, as all great literary characters have done when they have to speak the unspeakable. How else, he thinks at the end of his life and his discourse, can I impress upon my beloved Israelites the need to heed the law I have taught them for so long? For the Torah is your life, he tells them, and its observance shall prolong your lives upon the land where you go to possess it.
And what shall one do today to impress upon the Israelites the necessity to clean up their land, to rid it of the baseless lies and actions of the no-people Palestinians who slander and attack it, all the while begging the indulgence of the world which by and large grants it? Shall one again address the heavens and the earth like Lear on the heath? Shall one rail like a preacher out of a Faulkner novel against the sin and folly of too many people who ought to know better? Or shall one laugh at the same heavens and earth, as if laughter will rouse the Lord and His people from their slumber as it bounces off the firmaments above and below like the firestorm at Sinai? But there is this text, so why not read it? Why not have rabbis read it from pulpits and teachers from lecterns and politicians from the rostrums of parliaments, that the people who think all things are relative and Jews are disposable may see where such thinking leads. And that the Jews may awake from their backsliding before it is too late. And that their days upon the land be prolonged as long as the land shall be, and the Lord be sanctified in their midst upon it.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 15, 2018
And Moses went, the parasha opens. He went and spoke these words to all of Israel, these words being more of what he had already told them many times before. But this time the words were words of assurance: God will go with you when you cross over the Jordan and He will be with you when you dispossess the nations who inhabit the land and drive them out. Therefore, be strong and of good cheer, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will not fail you nor forsake you.
Moses knew something about walking with God. Surely he remembered that time when God threatened not to walk with the children of Israel, but send an angel in His stead, when the Israelites had thumbed their noses at the Lord and substituted a molten calf as their god. But Moses knew that even if God was so angry He did not want to accompany the Israelites on their trek home, Moses was not ready to walk without Him and laid it on the line. If You go not with us, Moses told the Lord, I am not going with them. There are some things in life that need to be done yet are so great that we cannot do them alone. We need God at our side when we undertake them, to strengthen us and make us be of good cheer.
Moses knew that to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land was no picnic. Nor was leading them for forty years through the desert an easy task. Nor would their conquest and settlement of the land and adherence to the covenant be an undertaking to which they and their offspring would easily hold fast. Yet Moses did not lose faith, did not abandon God, nor did he let God abandon him and his charges. That is the trick with God, Moses knew. Against overwhelming odds that would plunge you into discouragement if not despair, he says, talk to God, walk with God, share your burden with Him. Then in the face of opposition and doubts you will prevail. You may not win, but you shall prevail; and then you shall be a man, as the poet put it. And what is a man if not a man created in God’s image? And what is a man created in God’s image if not a being who strives to see and distinguish light from darkness, holy from profane, Israel from the nations; and who has no shame reading and writing the text that bids him be so?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 8, 2018
You are standing this day before God, the parasha begins, and the writing of this declaration ensures that the you mentioned in this summons applies to the reader as well. And so in simple yet poetic language Moses lays bare the contract: we have made it this far but there is more to do. When you come into the land take care not to backslide into idol worship. If you do, the Lord shall desert you and make your land as desolate as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And in case the evocation of their names is not enough to impress upon us the seriousness of what Moses here says, the text adds a few words to remind us of their fate: fire and brimstone and salt that devoured their land so that neither seed nor grass does grow. A nuclear wasteland, we would say today, we who are standing before God as well and think perhaps: is that where it will end, this never-ending call from Israel’s Muslim neighbors to liquidate the Jewish state and kill its Jews, whom they libel with their lies with which they indoctrinate their children to blood lust?
There is and will be no peace between Israel and the people who claim they are Palestinians. There is also no peace between Israel and the Muslim states that are its neighbors and tolerate it on sufferance. Things would be different if Israel made it clear that respect is due the Jewish state or no cooperation will be forthcoming. Things would be different if Israel told the so-called Palestinians that the jig is up, that the next time a Jewish citizen is killed by a Palestinian teenager or a Jewish field is burned by a Palestinian balloon the army will be sent in and the Palestinians will be evacuated once and for all from the land that was never theirs. Things would be different if Israel did not delude itself into thinking that the current situation could be managed indefinitely until one day the so-called Palestinians will sue for peace and the Muslim states will recognize Israel without reservations. But Israel does delude itself and the Jews continue to think that the idol worshippers can continue to live in their midst without causing undue trouble.
They ignore the warning signs. The debate inside Israel when a soldier is punished for killing a terrorist because he did not follow army protocol. The Israeli Arabs in high positions who refuse to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. The emigration of Jews from their Jewish homeland, weary of the constant onslaught. The yearly list of terrorist victims, whose numbers are tolerated because relatively small, but which one day will prove to be the list of one too many. And then what? By that time will the gangsters who run Gaza and the Palestinian Authority send waves of children across the border with torches and inflammable gas instead of balloons? Will hordes of women and youths descend on Jerusalem to protect a mosque Palestinian Muslim propaganda again falsely claims is under attack? Will Israel call its army out and if so, will it finally be told to eradicate the Palestinian presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza? Will Hizbollah join in and unleash its 100,000 rockets? Will Israel, its back to the wall, finally unleash its nuclear arsenal and turn not only the Jordan valley but the Arab Muslim hinterland into a furnace? Imagine a nuclear attack on Mecca or Teheran as payback for Muslim incendiary attacks, both verbal and physical, on the Jewish state and its right to exist. Or perhaps a simple firebombing of Gaza City or Ramallah to bring Sodom and Gomorrah back to life?
Better the Jews take matters in hand before they get totally out of hand. Things can always get worse, though politicians do not run on that slogan, even if they should. And so before things do indeed get worse, the Jews should remember Moses’s admonition and take his words to heart, for they apply to them today every bit as much as they applied to their forefathers on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The elimination of the Palestinian claim to Gaza, Judea and Samaria will go a long way to preparing a better future for the Middle East and ensuring Israeli survival in peace. And the elimination of that claim requires the expulsion of those who espouse it from the land before the wrath of the Lord is kindled against it once again. Remember: ye are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 1, 2018
Parashat Ki Tavo
When you come into the land. Is there a lovelier phrase in the entire Torah? Is there a lovelier phrase than when you come into? Ki tavo, a basketful of promises, like childhood, indeed childhood itself. The phrase is full of song, announces Shavuot, our baskets on our shoulders, our future our joy. Carousel.
And when you come into the land that is what you feel. Little wonder Yehuda Halevi bent down to kiss the soil. Little wonder you ask, where is Beit El? Where do I build my altar? Where do I bring my meat to give as a gift and to partake of its roasting? When you come into the land. When you come into the market. Olives. Tomatoes. Strawberries. Pita and challah. Eggplant and hummus. When you come into the land, where is my lover? Where is my beloved waiting at the window? Where is the window where I wait for my beloved? And what has happened to the dreams of my childhood?
When you come into the land, you come already bearing the gift of its language, the land itself a text, bearing gifts. And so when you come into the land you shall lift up your voice and speak, recite how the Lord brought you out of Egypt to this land of milk and honey, though often in your wanderings you claimed the opposite. Egypt, said the rebels to Moses on countless occasions, is the real land of milk and honey, the delicatessen of our childhood from which you uprooted us. Did the Jews of eastern Europe say that to Jabotinsky when he pleaded with them to liquidate the diaspora before the diaspora liquidated them? Do we not say that still when we continue to live in the lands of Jewish exile rather than go up and come into the land, there to sing in our national tongue? Is this not the lure of childhood, the eternal promised land even when it is not, because every child deserves as happy a childhood as possible? Only thus can we understand the lure of Egypt to the Hebrews who escaped their bondage there. And only thus do we understand the eternal Egyptian complex of the Jewish people, the longing for the playgrounds of their childhood.
In reality, though, Egypt was anything but that, as Moses reminds them in the curses that shall descend upon them should they abandon the covenant and leave the idol worshippers in the land. In this very parasha he warns them, how the Lord will bring upon them all the plagues of Egypt which they dreaded and will even bring them back to Egypt in ships. And even when we come into the land, as so many of us have, do we still not harbor the millennial ambiguity about the covenant Moses enjoined us to follow, still refusing to throw out the idol worshippers, still willing to accept Jewish sacrifices for the no-people who would destroy us and who every day egg on their young to murder us for living in the land to which we have come?
When you come into the land. The phrase conjures up the sweetness of youth, young girls and boys dancing with baskets on their shoulders, laughter on their faces, joy in their eyes, for all is right with the world in this eternal moment of happiness. And so it should be when you have come into the land and worked it and built it up and sang of it to the heavens, free of worry for the safety of those who live there. So may the Jews learn to sing one day in this land that is their land from the Jordan to the sea and from the desert in the south to the rivers of the north. For this land is bound up with the law and the text that wrote it, one scroll under heaven like one nation under God, a blessing unto the generations. Observe therefore the words of this covenant, Moses ends his peroration to his Israelite children at the end of this parasha, and do them, that ye may make all that ye do to prosper. From his mouth to God’s ears and to ours.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 25, 2018
Parashat Ki Teztze
The mysterious doctrine of shaatnez. Thou shall not sow thy vineyard with two kinds of seed. Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. Thou shall not wear wool and linen together. Neither shall you cross-dress, not man in woman’s garb nor woman in man’s clothing. What a hodge-podge, the reader may think, and an odd hodge-podge at that. Does the Torah know something about agriculture, fashion and cabaret that we do not? Or does the logic of these strictures lie elsewhere, in the difference with which God started the ball rolling and which we celebrate at twilight every Shabbat? Blessed art Thou Our God King of the Universe Who has distinguished the sacred from the profane, light from darkness, Israel from the nations. Blessed too is the difference without which we would stumble through life blind to what must be seen, not least the crooked timber of humanity, as the philosopher put it. And what is society if not the house of crooked timber, it too indebted to difference in a way we do not usually see.
Unlike what most people think, society is not made up of people. Nor is it people in groups. Society is a way of organizing difference. Throughout history there have not been very many ways of doing that. There have been societies organized around the difference of kinship. There have been societies organized around the difference of rank. And there have been societies organized around the difference of function. Each has produced its own structures of expectation, ways of living considered normal to the people who live in them. And though people may everywhere be the same biologically or psychologically, they differ remarkably in what they consider to be normal when they live in different societies.
In kinship societies blood is the main tie that binds, but also differentiates groups one from another. The groups, clans and tribes, are more or less on an equal footing, run by a chief or patriarch. Alliances shift depending on the closeness of family ties, insults to family honor quickly lead to violent clashes between clans and tribes, rigid adherence to social norms, sexual and otherwise, is strictly enforced. Hierarchical societies, which emerge with the rise of monarchies, structure and divide societies according to class. An aristocracy and priesthood dominate at the top, from which the rest, artisans and peasants for the most part, remain excluded. Society is, to all intents and purposes, the aristocratic orders. Societies organized according to the difference of function burst asunder the rigidities of class. Instead, each social sphere runs on its own rules, more and more people have access to the different social spheres, the dignity and freedom of each individual becomes operationally effective throughout the society.
These different societies are not compatible. When they meet they clash. Either the old order prevails or the new way of organizing difference wins out. Historically, royalty has replaced kinship societies, and democracies have replaced royalty. Ancient Israel was a remarkable experiment in that respect. It emerged from a kinship based society and challenged the royal powers of the day, of which Egypt was exemplary. It sought to replace both with a law-based society more typical of modern democracies, but could not escape the route of kingship and class. The Torah, however, remains a proto-modern text, beseeching the Israelites to move from family to nation and establish a society with the separation of religious and temporal functions, organized on the basis of the rule of law. Shaatnez, you might say, is the beginning of functional differentiation, with much pertinence for the thorny issue of multiculturalism in our day.
The Torah recognized that the experiment of ancient Israel was incompatible with the surrounding societies. Hence the constant admonition to throw out the idol-worshippers lest they contaminate the new society the Hebrews were to found. Yes, there was one law for all, for the stranger and sojourner in their midst, but for that to apply even the stranger and sojourner had to accept to function according to the rules and laws of the Hebrew confederacy and leave their strange ways behind. Those who did not, the Moloch worshippers who sacrificed their children to their gods – a practice emblematic of the surrounding kinship and even imperial societies – had to be expelled. And so it is today. People who emigrate to modern societies from kinship societies cannot be digested unless they come because they embrace the expectations of modern democracies: tolerance, pluralism, compromise, peaceful resolution of conflict through mediation and the courts. If they do not, they will simply wreak havoc, as the current Muslim immigration to European countries amply testifies.
And for much the same reason, Israel cannot hope to integrate a misnamed Palestinian population within its boundaries. Palestinian society, to the extent one can even use that name, is socially organized child abuse, imbued from top to bottom with genocidal Jew hatred. That is why its leaders never miss a chance to miss a chance for peace, as the late Abba Eban put it. They have no interest in the peaceful resolution of conflict typical of modern functionally differentiated societies, of which Israel is indeed one. Neither do the Muslim societies that surround it. At heart they are still kinship societies with an overlay of Islam and authoritarian rulers, that, given their structure of expectations, allow no place for a Jewish state in their midst. Which is what makes Israel’s conflict with her neighbors unresolvable except through military victory and, in the case of the Palestinians, expulsion. Shaatnez again, come to remind us of what we can mix and not mix.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 18, 2018
This week’s Torah reading, chock full as usual, raises the vexing question of prophecy. Ye are not to hearken unto soothsayers and diviners, Moses tells the children of Israel; that is what the nations you shall dispossess do. Instead, God shall send you prophets like me, who shall speak unto you His words, and you shall follow the advice he gives you. But, Moses adds, if the prophet speaks presumptuously, meaning he speaks not in God’s name but in the name of other gods, then hearken not unto him, for he shall die. And how do you know, Moses asks, if the prophet indeed speaks the word of God? And Moses answers his own question: When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him.
In one sense, this warning is sagacious, for it bears within it a caution against magical thinking. Science versus witchcraft, one might say. For diviners and soothsayers will stick to their preachings even when they fly in the face of reality. Their claim to truth lies in their inner conviction, absolute in their faith that they know because they have a connection with the divine that stems from their own powers. Revelation as mysticism. Revelation as the occult. Little matter that rational observation cannot explain how the arrangement of stones or the disposition of entrails justifies human conduct. Against this, the Torah asserts, is something akin to historical method. If people advise a certain course of action, look at the results. If the action thus forewarned does in fact ensue, then the likelihood increases that the advice was sound. If the person who so cautioned claimed he was speaking in the name of the Lord, then so he was, you may say with a greater degree of certainty. That’s what comes from the monotheistic revolution: the belief in one God spawns rational thought. It is up to men, using their powers of observation, to discover the mind of God. Even the late Stephen Hawking spoke such language, as Spinoza did before him centuries earlier.
But of course things are not so simple. Even on the level playing field of rational observation and scientific method disagreements abound. If a course of prescribed action does not produce the result that was prophesized, does that mean the advice or theory was wrong? Perhaps other intervening factors explain why the foretold results did not occur. Are their countervailing theories or prophecies that would do a better job at explaining things? Do we ignore the observations that do not fit our theories and adjust the data accordingly, so that if the thing follows not, does not come to pass, we still insist that we are right? Or do we condemn the messenger as a false prophet and let him die, literally or figuratively? Is that what the history of science and politics teaches?
Moses himself fudges the issue. For in extolling divine prophecy over divination and soothsaying, he tells his assembled Israelites that the Lord will send them a prophet like him when he is no longer around. As He did at Horeb when the Israelites begged Moses to speak with God on their behalf, fearful they would die if they had to hear His voice and see His fire. And Moses added, as he related this story, that the Lord told him the Israelites had done well to speak thus, though the Torah says no such thing in Yitro. It is an ex post facto addition to bolster his admonition to them forty years later. The irony of the Torah speaks loud and clear once again, subverting the message about the truth proof of prophecy even as it is advanced. It may be a good thing to judge advice by the results it promises, but that alone is no confirmation of the prophet’s being a true one. Moses was a great man, the greatest leader we ever had, but was he a prophet, even if that description is often added to his name? And does he have to have been a prophet to have been a great man, though the curses he will outline in the weeks to come proved prophetic enough?
The dilemma of prophecy has not left us even today. Let us take an example closer to home. The Oslo Accords were hailed as the opening chapter of the New Middle East. But the Middle East turned out to be the same old one, and in many respects, even worse. Certainly they brought Israel much grief, but their architects have never disavowed their actions. Similarly with the disengagement from Gaza. The advocates of the Gaza withdrawal claimed it would force the Palestinian leaders to assume responsibility for good governance. Should the opposite prove the case and Israel be attacked, Israel could always go back in. Nothing the advocates of the retreat from Gaza predicted proved true. A genocidal theocracy took over in Gaza. Israel did not return to take control of the Strip. Yet the advocates of the initial policy continue to advocate that more concessions to relieve a humanitarian crisis manufactured by Hamas will produce peace. One could be charitable and say this is soothsaying of major proportions. Clearly, it is false prophecy. Even the champions of rational thought disembodied from its theological origins would have trouble arguing anything else, though it does not prevent them from persisting in their historically proven errors. That the prescriptions of the Torah in this chapter and throughout Deuteronomy about what to do with idol-worshippers turned out to be true is only salt to be rubbed in their wounds and grist for the long reach of the Torah’s irony once again.
Those who would argue the lessons of recent failed policies are clear and it is time to rid the land of people who desire its destruction are clearly still vilified, still a minority. The appeal to observed facts persuades no one who needs to be persuaded. And should those who argue thus fall back on the words of Moses to justify their position, they would doubtlessly be accused of being false prophets, if not ridiculed for invoking the mantle of prophecy in the first place. Indeed, even the rabbis have long ago announced that the era of prophecy has ended. But has it? Is expertise in the affairs of men not prophecy? And if all else fails, does not the Torah with its penchant for ironic reflection have its place in guiding those same affairs? Perhaps it is not prediction which ought to be the litmus test of our advice and the actions that flow from it. Perhaps it is history, including the pages of this text which have known quite a long one; studied, mulled over, taken to the circumcised heart.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 11, 2018
See, behold, we read again, Moses telling his people the land is theirs to conquer and to keep if they but keep to the covenant, whose statutes have been laid out for them these past forty years and written down in this holy book which all are enjoined to read and reread. Of course not all the statutes are gone over again, but significantly those that are mentioned refer to three pillars of this covenant: the worship of the One God, holiness with respect to the body, intelligent care of the unfortunate. But once again pride of place is given to the first pillar, for the worship of the One God Who brought them out of Egypt to give them this land cannot brook the simultaneous worship of other gods and the nefarious practices such worship inevitably entails. Hence, Moses stresses, make sure to demolish the heathen idols and places of worship and establish the Sanctuary where you will observe your fealty. And since we worship One God only, there will be one place only where you will accomplish such observances. One God. One Temple. One law for all. A stunning innovation in antiquity, the difference God vowed to establish when taking the Jews out of Egypt. It is also the difference with which God began the whole process back in the beginning, at the very start of Genesis. For in the face of the void and the unformed He created the very first difference, that of light and darkness, that He may see and we may see, and that it may be good.
But seeing, it seems, is not that easy, not for the cast of characters that inhabit the Book of Genesis and not for the Israelites with whom God tries for the third time to see if the difference He launches into history will take. Nor for that matter do contemporary Jews seem to see any more clearly. For like their compatriots of old, the inhabitants of the Jewish state have allowed the places of idolatry to flourish in their land and exercise their malevolent influence, especially there where the Sanctuary of the Lord once stood and should today now stand. But instead of the sound of pomegranate bells ringing across the flagstones on the Day of Atonement atop the Temple Mount, the filth of Muslim Jew hatred spews forth from the muzzein call to prayer. And because the Jews refuse to reclaim sovereignty over the one place which Moses long ago foresaw as the place where the Lord shall dwell, not only does the Sanctuary of the Lord stand desolate, but the land of its Jewish inhabitants is put to the torch and the knife, while the government makes deals with its enemies and restrains its soldiers from ridding the land of the Moloch worshippers. And no one rejoices before God and no one dwells in safety, because the Jews as usual break the covenant at its starting point.
Truly they do not see, do not see that the difference the Lord created three times over in the Torah is their inheritance; do not see that the difference they think they prize is not applicable to nations who worship murder, nurture resentment, sacrifice their children to their false gods of family honor and fake country. In three thousand years the Jews have learned nothing no matter how many times they have read the Torah, and so today, once again, they will not bring their sacrifices to the Lord in His seasons and theirs. And the Temple Mount shall lie desolate because they will not follow the advice that Moses gave them time and time again for the day when they come into the land and settle it: Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. But not unto your God, Moses tells his people. On the contrary, unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come.
But the Jews will not come because the Jews do not see. And the Jews do not see because although they know how to read they do not see what they read. Not the Torah. Not history. Not even their own recent history. And for the sin of not seeing they pay and shall continue to pay a heavy price: betrayal of the past and of the future, betrayal of the land and of those who defend it, betrayal of all the good that was fought for and died for ever since the Lord created the difference between light and darkness and saw that it was good.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 4, 2018
Love your God and keep His statutes, Moses tells the children of Israel over and over. All the statutes, especially the ones commanding them to throw the idol worshippers out of the land and to be kind to the less fortunate. Again Moses paints a wonderful picture to the Hebrew nation-in-waiting of the land they are about to invade, conquer and inherit, and the many bounties they will receive if they hearken to the Lord and all that he, Moses, has taught them during their many wanderings and in spite of their many backslidings. And to drive home the point Moses refers to this land as a land flowing with milk and honey, the very phrase the rebels threw in his face when they challenged his leadership, saying Egypt, not Canaan, was the land that so flowed. And this reminds all the malingerers who constantly wanted to return to Egypt – few of whom remained but their memory must certainly have persisted – that the promised land was not the land of their childhood, Goshen and environs, but the land that would house the Jewish nation in all its glory. And not just the malingerers, Moses thinks, but those who might be tempted to repeat the offence and weaken the drive to cross the Jordan and conquer the land, a worry that never leaves him. You see, Moses tells his flock, I was right all along. The promised land lies before us, not behind.
For the land whither thou goest in to possess it is not in the land of Egypt from whence ye came out, where thou didst sow thy seed and didst water it with thy foot, as a garden with herbs, but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rains of heaven cometh down; a land which the Lord thy God cares for; the eyes of the Lord are always upon it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year. The contrast which Moses draws between Egypt and Canaan highlights the difficulty the children of Israel, not to mention people everywhere, have in accepting to undergo hardships on behalf of a dream that lies in the future. Not for nothing did the Israelites clamor incessantly to return to Egypt, for it was, in a sense, their promised land because it was the land of their childhood, there where they sowed their seed. And everyone always wants to go back to the garden, the one they first knew and experienced and which holds their memory in thrall, even if the experience was fraught with pain. To break with the pain and move on requires courage and work. Moses himself had to do it with respect to his own childhood. But the confrontation and the overcoming gave him the strength to be the Israelites’ leader, and soldier on in the face of their desire to regress that always popped up. There is a lesson there for us all, for us as individuals and for us as a nation. The swirling promised land of childhood always beckons with its siren charms, and it often takes a lifetime to escape it and move on.
And how do we do that even with all the work, if not to walk with God and keep Him by our side for those moments when courage fails and we too wish to regress? That is what Moses tells the children of Israel when he retells the story of the debacle at Sinai, how he talked God out of abandoning them and then, with God at his side, Moses found the courage to strike out again and go forward to the promised land. The dreams we have require faith, faith not only in ourselves, for we falter and stumble on our way, but faith also in a force outside us, in light and truth that look on the world from the standpoint of eternity. And what is that if not to walk with God through the valley of life, to fear Him and love Him and serve Him with all our heart and all our soul, as Moses bids his compatriots to do in this parasha? How comforting it is, after all, to know there is a place and a viewpoint other than our own little needs and desires from which to draw sustenance and reflection on our life’s travails. Behold, unto the Lord thy God belongeth the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, with all that therein is, Moses tells his gathered flock, and the words drip like honey into their bruised souls and hopefully linger there as sustenance for the challenges that await them. And when Moses calls them to make that leap of faith, to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts, as he puts it, and put away their stiffnecked obduracy, he describes the God with Whom he would have them walk in glowing but compassionate and comforting terms, reminding one and all that the purpose for the conquest of the Promised Land was law and justice, not tyranny and imperium. God of Gods, Lord of Lords, Who cares for the downtrodden and the unfortunate – widows, orphans, strangers – and Who has done so many wonders for His people, whom He brought down to Egypt seventy in number and who now stand on the banks of the Jordan an armed multitude. Indeed, the reader would not be wrong in thinking he or she hears the music of Handel cascading down the sentences. He is thy glory. He is thy God. Walk with Him. Talk to Him. Then the promised land too shall be yours and you shall live long upon it. What else can stiffen the backs of the Jews and reconcile them to their inheritance?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 28, 2018
Moses continues the thread of his story which is also their story and ours, the founding story of the Israelite nation. Again he retells that story with a difference, starting with his opening line: And I besought the Lord at that time; that time referring to the moment in time they had just reached, after their victories over Sihon and Og which had brought them to the banks of the Jordan. But though in Numbers Moses had not besought the Lord at all, here he tells the Israelites he had indeed asked Him to cross over into the Promised Land, that goodly land beyond the Jordan all the way to the Lebanon. But the Lord did not allow that, Moses tells them, and tells them again twenty-eight sentences later, doubling down on this version as he doubles down on everything else in this week’s reading, because of all things he wants to double down on is the message that they should obey the covenant and carry it close to their hearts. And if that is the case for the children of Israel assembled before him, how can it not be for us? For is it not said in that very same chapter what we hear every Monday and Thursday and Sabbath and Festival: And this is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel?
Further on in this parasha, after Moses recapitulates the Ten Commandments for his flock of next generation Israelites – and in this recapitulation too Moses alters somewhat the version recounted in Exodus – he then reminds them of how things transpired at Sinai. He recalls the fire that burned at the top of the mountain and the voice of the Lord that boomed out of the fire and the fear and awe that struck their parents to the point they begged Moses to speak to God on their behalf and then tell them what He has said that they may hear and do what the Lord commands them to do. For if they hear the voice of God any more they will die, Moses now has them saying, and adds these words ascribed to their parents: For who is there of all flesh that heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire as we have, and lived? But things did not transpire exactly like that. Nor did the Lord then tell Moses, as Moses now claims, that He was delighted with these words of the children of Israel and wished they had such a benign disposition toward Him always, to fear Him and keep all His commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children for ever.
In fact, if we reread the story of the Ten Commandments as told in the Book of Exodus, we will find no such delight on the part of the Lord. What we do read is the exact opposite. Even before He has uttered the Ten Commandments the Lord tells Moses to double check that the people have not broken through the bounds set about the mountain. And though the people are awe-stricken enough by God’s performance in giving them the Ten Commandments to ask of Moses afterwards that he no longer let them hear God’s voice, they do not follow up on their promise to do and listen to all that the Lord has spoken through him, which by then included all the ordinances of the parasha Mishpatim. For when Moses finally ascends the mountain to get the tablets of stone and tarries there, the people forget both their fear and their promise. Before Moses can make it down the Israelites transgress the first and second commandments from which the other eight flow, not to mention all the ordinances of Mishpatim ending with the injunction to drive the inhabitants from the land God will give them.
Why then, the reader may ask, does Moses twist events in this retelling of the major story of the Hebrew Bible? Did the writer leave out details when the story was first told in Exodus? Or does Moses now add this new twist precisely because he knows what transpired almost forty years earlier and did not want this next generation of Israelites to repeat the mistake? Instead of reminding them that their parents broke all their vows, acted out of fear first of God and then of being abandoned by God, Moses seeks to find the nugget of gold in the original story that will encourage the present generation to stick to the script, to go forth and conquer the land and establish God’s covenant therein. He therefore dwells on that part of the story that stresses the people’s embrace of the Lord that arose from their fear. The people experienced the terrible moment of Sinai and were shook to the core, for it was a momentous event. It still is. Not only in the pyrotechnics atop Sinai but in the legacy bequeathed to the world. How will the next generation avoid succumbing to what their parents did, Moses wonders, he who will not be accompanying them across the Jordan to see that they do? And so he impresses upon them the importance of the Ten Commandments he has just repeated for their ears.
The message is simple. The Ten Commandments were but the beginning from which all the other laws and ordinances I have taught you for forty years flow. Yes, they are awe-inspiring, as they were for your parents, so awe-inspiring that they could not bear to hear anything more from the Lord, but insisted they hear it through me. Nonetheless, their reaction pleased the Lord, for it showed they recognized the terrible difference He was attempting to institute with them. And so the Lord told them, Moses now recounts, to return to their tents while I remained with the Lord to receive the statutes which I have communicated to you that you may fulfill them in the land which He has given you.
Continuing in that vein rather than dwell on the transgression which to the present generation may seem like a fading memory, Moses then hammers home the point by simplifying the message to its essence: Hear O Israel, The Lord Our God, The Lord Is One. And if you have doubts, Moses goes on, you have but to do the following: love thy God will all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy might. This simple message, Moses now hopes, will suffice where all the glory of the Exodus and Sinai did not. It will go forth even in his absence, if only the Israelites can integrate it into their lives as an abiding faith and reminder of all that started at Sinai. For if they remember and observe this first commandment, as he now enjoins them to both remember and observe the Sabbath, then the chances of establishing the Hebrew commonwealth ruled by law in the land of Israel are good.
And so it is today. Sinai yielded laws governing transactions and charity, war and peace, prayer and crime. It gave rise to the commandment to establish those laws in a country that lay between empires which had no such impetus. It founded that impetus in a monotheistic God whose power and glory, far beyond the manipulation of men, were nonetheless sufficient to launch that difference into history. It was the fortune of the ancient Hebrews to carry that impetus forward. Not because they were more in number than other nations, as Moses lays out for them in this parasha, but because the Lord loved them and would keep His promise to their forefathers to bring them out of the house of bondage. And as the Lord keeps His covenant, Moses explains, so will his people have to keep theirs. That is what it means to be the chosen people, a term that pops up in this parasha as well and precisely in this context. It is, of course, no easy task being so chosen, and no easy task holding up that covenant. The Israelites found that out at Sinai and so have their descendants down to this day. But without loving our God with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might, the task is well-nigh impossible. Those who cannot abide defining Israel as the Jewish state might want to think about that, especially if they cherish the covenant half as much as Moses did.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 21, 2018
Moses says farewell to the children of Israel, but it is a long farewell for he has much to say, much to go over in their long journey to this point they have reached at the banks of the Jordan, in the Arava which runs down contemporary Israel’s desert east coast. He starts with the central event of that journey, the incident with the spies that led to their forty year sojourn in the desert, reminding them that they did not listen to him when he told them to dread not their enemies nor fear them, for God goes with them and before them.
And so they wandered. For forty years they wandered, skirting the lands of Seir rather than go to war with the Edomites, for they were descendants of Esau, son of the third patriarch, and so family. Similarly with the Moabites and Ammonites, for they were the descendants of the offspring of Lot, nephew of the first patriarch, and family as well. But not so with Sihon and Og, with whom the children of Israel went to battle and against whom they were victorious. But in recounting this part of the story Moses changes it somewhat. They went to war against Sihon, Moses says, because unlike the Edomites and Moabites, he would not grant them free passage through his land, though they offered to pay for whatever food and water they consumed. In Numbers, however, we were told that Edom would not grant the Israelites passage through their land, while Moab’s king had sought to curse them with the prophet Balaam and wound up going to war with them anyway.
Much of Deuteronomy changes the story slightly. One can chalk it up to declining memory in old age. One can chalk it up to the way events always appear different after the fact, the difference between the present and the pluperfect tenses of life. But in the difference lies food for thought for the contemporary present and pluperfect. In the version of events retold in this week’s Torah reading we learn a few new things. We learn that the Edomites and Moabites and Ammonites were no more indigenous to the lands they inhabit than were the Israelites to Canaan. Conquest by war was endemic to these societies, and in many respects still is. The frontiers of contemporary Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, not to mention Lebanon and Syria, were the result of internecine tribal warfare and great power politics. The Saudis ousted the Hashemites from the Arabian peninsula much as the Edomites of old ousted the Horites and the Ammonites in their day the Rephaim, and as, the Bible relates, the Caphtorim ousted the Avvim from Gaza. So much for the so-called Palestinian claim to being the original Canaanites and descendants of the Philistines of Gaza. So much also for the assertion that Israel has no claim to Judea and Samaria. That Israel captured territory from Jordan in the Six-Day War does not make its claim to Judea and Samaria any less legitimate. If anything, given the hostilities unleashed by Jordan against it, its claim is even stronger. Given also that war has always produced changes in sovereignty, the idea that it should not appears, in the light of history, ludicrous. The Torah reminds us of this basic fact, which only in the case of contemporary Israel does not seem to apply. That Jews buy into this historical warping is all the more shocking. But perhaps not so surprising, given what Moses had to say about the Edomites and Moabites and Ammonites as family.
How often do we not hear that the Arabs and Jews are cousins, descendants of the one patriarch Abraham, and because of that fact, the current enmity that exists between them is surely a needless and passing one? Yet even long ago, when the Israelites asked for free passage through the lands of their cousins, their request met with denial and hostility, much as their request for peace today does. Even Jordan, for whom Israel continues to have a soft spot, treats Israel with contempt whenever it can. Only recently a Jordanian columnist in a leading newspaper attributed recently felt earthquakes in the region to Israeli military testing, behind which lay Israeli designs – so he claimed – to carry out attacks against the Al-Aqsa mosque and Judaize Jerusalem, echoing thereby a charge often heard from Jordan’s ruler. Yet Israel continues to place sovereignty over the Temple Mount in the hands of the Jordanian Waqf and bars Jews from visiting their holiest of places.
Such policy reflects a strategic thinking that is as blinkered as it is old, as old as the Torah and as blinkered as Moses’ memory in this opening parasha of Devarim. Its roots lie in a misunderstanding of the nature of tribal society, in the tendency to think that bonds of kinship will prevail over the rage that kinship society also produces. Kinship societies make alliances always fragile. Blood ties shift with attacks on clan honor. And nations that are built on those shifting sands can turn on friends on a dime and slaughter whole populations with impunity. Moses himself tells of such events in this very parasha, even as he reminds the Israelites why God would not have them go to war against Edom, Moab and Ammon; for they are family. But family can do you in, as Shimon and Levi showed their sister and Joseph’s brothers showed him. As Egypt and Jordan show Israel today, even though they have signed peace treaties with her.
What then are we to conclude? What Moses told his assembled flock at the end of this parasha: go up and conquer the land which I have given to you; fear not the inhabitants that dwell therein, however strong the spies forty years ago told you they were; remember all that the Lord has done for you lo these many years and remember too that He shall go with you when you go forth; therefore fear not your enemies. Excellent advice then and now. Is anybody listening? Are the Jews?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 14, 2018
The Israelites are camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho when Moses instructs them in the laws about the cities of sanctuary. The Levites are not to have a tribal land for they shall help the high priests in the work of the Sanctuary. Instead they are to be given forty-eight cities and some open land around them. But the Levites are to designate six of those cities as cities of refuge where killers who commit involuntary manslaughter may flee and remain there free from the vengeance of the victim’s kinsmen. However, Moses explains, should judicial inquiry reveal that the man who fled there actually committed voluntary manslaughter then he shall be put to death and no ransom accepted for him. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.
In these few sentences we have the condensed genius of the historical innovation of ancient Israel: a law-based society, the outlaw of murder as an appropriate response to outraged passions, the rooting of the law in a power beyond individuals. And all wrapped up in the idea of holiness, as Israel shifts from a tribal society rooted in kinship to a nation founded on the hierarchy of law. The theme runs throughout the Torah and echoes in the words themselves. It starts with Noah when God blessed him and his sons after the Flood and told them: Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, you shall not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require it; and at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man. And later in Leviticus, instructing the Israelites in the injunction against eating blood, Moses says: And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel: No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And later again in Deuteronomy, when laying down the law of what is to be done when a corpse is found in a field, Moses explains the injunction to have the elders of the closest city wring a heifer’s neck in the nearest valley this way: And they shall speak and say: ’Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Thy people Israel.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them. So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.
This is the Torah’s answer to Cain, to Shimon and Levi, to Joseph’s brothers, to all who would argue that blood vengeance is an acceptable way of doing business. This is what even today distinguishes Israel from its Arab neighbors, who think nothing of using murder to dispose of people outside the tribe and clan network, not to mention outside the religion of Islam. It is also what makes Israel’s search for peace so intractable, for the conflict with its neighbors is not only one of religion, but one of society; between a society that is based on the rule of law and a society that is based on blood ties; between, as Muslim clerics have put it, a society that values life and one that glorifies death. It is the text of ancient Israel, the Holy Bible, that forbade not only child sacrifice, but murder of any kind, murder premeditated and not premeditated, allowing only that in the latter case cities of refuge be established to halt the cycle of blood. For otherwise the entire society slides into violence and lawlessness, which makes life untenable for all. Murder is therefore the great no-no. Left to human passions murder would be rampant. It takes a force outside the individual and stronger than his passions to curb it; religion or law, courts and evntually the police. Ancient Judaism was such a civilizing force, and in that respect the Jewish religion was an historical innovation of premier importance. In that respect too we can understand the repeated command the Lord issued to the Israelites through His servant Moses to be a holy people unto Him. For what is holy? To acknowledge that the land is God’s before it is man’s and that life is His before it is ours. That way we may be humble and restrained when our passions would urge us on to violence and murder, however strong our outrage. That way we may work to make our lives sufficiently secure that we and our neighbors can go about our business in safety. It is the first step toward holiness and to becoming a holy people. It is the sine qua non in signing onto the covenant. It is also the backbone to defending it and the land without which our holiness is not complete. Then ruthlessness is justified, as Moses amply demonstrated to his wayward Jews time and time again, all the way from their exodus out of Egypt to their encampment in the plains of Moab by the banks of the Jordan.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 7, 2018
See the literary genius of the Torah; see its rhythm at work. For weeks we have read drama galore. Even last week we were treated to poetry from on high, fornication and idolatry down below, which only the zealous action of Pinchas recapitulated at the outset of this Torah reading put an end to. There follows a new census of the children of Israel, for we are forty years on now and the old generation has died out. The census leads to a question about the laws of inheritance when the father leaves no sons, for the daughters of one Zelophechad brought their case to Moses for judgment. But once judgment was rendered the Lord spoke to Moses and told him to climb the mountain of Avarim, there to behold the land he would not enter. Moses asks the Lord to appoint a replacement, and Joshua is brought before the priest Eleazar and all the people and is so anointed. And then, as if nothing had happened since last God spoke to Moses with instructions with respect to laws and statutes and ordinances – as if the Israelites had not balked at going forth to battle and conquer the land, as if Korach and company had not revolted, as if Aaron’s rod had not blossomed, as if the congregation had not mutinied and wailed and Moses had not struck the rock instead of speaking to it, as if no plague had broken out and been stayed, as if Aaron and Miriam had not died and the carcasses of the Exodus generation had not fallen from their bones – the Lord now speaks to Moses about the sacrifices that are due Him. And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying: Command the children of Israel and say unto them: My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Me, shall ye observe to offer unto Me in its due season.
It is, we see, business as usual, the Book of Laws sandwiched between the Book of Stories so that the reader is not overwhelmed and led to forget. For surely it is easier to remember the details of the story of Moses forbidden to enter the Promised Land than it is to retain the prescriptions for the sacrifices on the New Moon. But a society of laws is the raison d’être of the exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land. There the children of Israel are to realize the covenant established between them and the Lord and become a holy people to Him. Keeping the sacrifices in their seasons is the round the year reminder that they are to do just that. Even the words used in the Lord’s admonishment to Moses remind us of that. The food which is to be a sweet savour unto the Lord harks back to the very first sweet savour He smelled when Noah sacrificed to Him after the Flood, and the Lord subsequently vowed never to destroy every living thing again. Moreover, even in the list of sacrifices there are differences that underline the promise of keeping the covenant and the likelihood of failure. For the daily burnt offering and for the Sabbath burnt offering no sin offering is added. But for the New Moon, for Passover and Shavuot, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and for all the days of Sukkot a sin offering is added to the sacrifices that are ordained: burnt offering, meal offering, drink offering thereof.
We have long ago substituted prayer for sacrifice. But now that we have a state again and Jerusalem is our capital and the Temple Mount atop Jerusalem is part of our sovereignty, the option is there to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the traditional offers to the Lord in the appointed seasons, modern technology helping in the effort. Imagine a national synagogue of the Jewish people rebuilt with chapels for all, even for the secularists who nonetheless wish to celebrate bar-mitzvahs and weddings at the Temple of their people. Imagine the smell of lamb shwarma rising to the nostrils of the celebrants while they chant and chatter as Jews have habitually done for ages in their labors of prayer. Imagine the festivals observed in their seasons with hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims going up to Jerusalem as they were commanded to do of old. Then will we know we are truly a sovereign people in our land. Then will the return to Zion be complete and the sweet savour offered to the Lord in His appointed seasons and ours will confirm the promise made not only to Noah but to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all their descendants.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 30, 2018
Parashat Balak remains one of the literary and dramatic gems of the Torah. Reading it always leaves the reader perplexed, which is proof perfect of its success in that regard. Here we have a so-called prophet, or perhaps seer, self-defined as someone reputed to be a respected spinner of parables, yet knows himself to be much less than that, perhaps a bit of a fraud or huckster. He nonetheless knows enough about his trade to consider himself a man who, though he only dimly perceives what is going on, can have his eyes opened. Did not his ass after all see what he could not?
After three attempts to placate the Moabite king, who summoned him to curse the Israelites in the hope such black magic would protect him from their attack, Balaam has learned that the Lord wishes only good for this people; and in his third parable waxes so eloquent about Israel’s blessed place in the eyes of the Lord that Balak is thoroughly downcast and dismisses Balaam forthwith. But Balaam does not leave before venturing forth on his own to tell the Moabite king what shall befall him at the hands of the Israelites in the course of time. Before he does so, Balaam describes himself this time as a man who not only heareth the words of God but knoweth the knowledge of the Most High, then adding his usual introduction as someone who seeth the vision of the Almighty, fallen down, yet with opened eyes. Balaam then goes on to predict that Israel shall eventually conquer its neighbors, including Moab and even its kinsman Edom, while those enemies that constantly harass it shall themselves succumb to conquest, if not by Israel then by others who themselves shall wind up being destroyed.
All this Balaam foresees while gazing down upon the Israelites from the top of Peor, whence he could see the Israelites camped in the wilderness below. And what are the Israelites camped in the wilderness below doing? Why fornicating with the daughters of Moab, no less. Indeed, as soon as Balaam left off prophesying and went on his way home, the Torah shifts our attention to the Israelites camped in Shittim to tell us that this people but recently blessed by Balaam began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. Not only did they go a-whoring, but the whoring led to idol worship, the Midianite and Moabite women having lured the Israelites from sex to a frenzy of feasting and bowing to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor, no less, the Torah says, reinforcing the utter contradiction between the words of Balaam uttered from the top of Peor and the behavior of the Israelites below. So great was the wild abandon of the Israelites reminiscent of the orgy of the golden calf at Sinai that the Torah even takes time to singularize the event by recounting the incident of one of the Israelites, Zimri, a prince of the house of Shimon, who flaunted his copulation with a Midianite woman, Cozbi the daughter of Zur, in front of Moses and the entire congregation. The whole episode ends badly as usual: plague, regret and wailing among the Israelites followed by a war of revenge against the Midianites, not to mention the zealous action of Pinehas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, who chased the lascivious couple to their bedchamber and ran them both through with a spear while they were fornicating.
The entire scene is a double of what has preceded, the latter having gone up on top of the mountain, this orgy of transgression going on below. On top of the mountain we were treated to the story of Balaam, a seer who could not see, could not divine that the Lord really did not want him to answer Balak’s summons, even if he would wind up blessing God’s chosen people. Yet having talked himself into believing that the Lord acquiesced in his decision, Balaam winds up uttering words of praise of the Hebrew camp that have gone down in history. Down below, however, the Israelites showed once again how little they deserved that praise, they too once again blind to the good fortune with which God has favored them, turning on Him and His covenant as they so often and so recently turned on Moses.
What are we to make of all this? For one, the Torah drives home the importance of perspective. If you cannot see yourself and cannot see what is important and what is not, you are doomed to misery. Balaam could not see himself from where he sat in his home, a minor prophet for hire. Only when he changed position and saw the Israelites of whom he had heard from the top of the mountains of Moab could he begin to see and understand their momentous importance and learn a lesson that made him a better seer. The Israelites camped below were as blind as Balaam, fallen and not even with eyes yet opened. They had less excuse than Balaam, for they had changed places countless times. They had been in Egypt and left it. Been at the Red Sea and crossed it. Stood at the foot of Sinai and witnessed the glory of God, heard the covenant, acquiesced and broke it, and survived to tell the tale. They wandered in the desert, clamored for food and water, reneged on the deal to go up and conquer the land, yet time and time again were pardoned by Moses’ intercession with God and now found themselves in the plains of Moab by the banks of the Jordan. Yet still they do not see, a fitting reflection of the pathetic figure called appropriately to bless them. One wants to weep. And when one thinks of subsequent Jewish history one does weep. Just as one weeps when thinking of the situation contemporary Israel finds itself in it, playing with fire as firebombs set the country ablaze and only Moshe Feiglin, like a modern-day Pinehas, reminding his people what they ought to be doing instead.
The low-life farce of this parasha turns out to be a literary and political tour de force, a tale of pathos and perspective that is an exemplary cautionary tale about the need to see adequately in order to assume one’s proper identity. Zehut is the word for identity in Hebrew. It is also the name of Moshe Feiglin’s new political party, a name that is more than fitting in the light of this week’s parasha. For unless Israel signs on to assuming its Jewish identity and proudly so, it risks singing into the abyss of its forefathers in the desert below the mountain top of Peor.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 23, 2018
After the Korach rebellion had been suppressed and Aaron’s position as High Priest had been confirmed, Moses settled down to teach, but the teaching was more a repeat version of what the rebellion had contested: the separation of the Levites from the rest of Israel and the division of labor between Aaron and his sons, the future priestly class, and the rest of the tribe. First dealing with the matter at hand, then fixing the outcome in statute law, a law everlasting. That done, Moses could turn his energies to new matters: the red heifer and the laws concerning death and contact with the dead, especially the rituals to be observed in order to purify yourself from contact with the dead and anything that comes in contact with it. For whoever hath come into contact with the dead and purifies not himself has defiled the tabernacle of the Lord, a phrase that drives home the point that the business of the covenant is life, that life is holiness, and holiness is reached through the observance of the law in the land promised for that. Judaism has always been a life-affirming religion, in marked contrast to the death cultures of the empires from which it spawned, a nation carved out from another in a singular historical moment.
Here too the laws are interwoven with the stories and their place chosen because of that. Chapter 19 deals with the laws of death and purification. Chapter 20 opens with the death of Miriam and closes with the death of Aaron. The former is tersely told. The children of Israel came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month and camped in Kadesh, and Miriam died there and there was she buried. That is all we are told. The Torah’s silence on the matter is deafening. Where would we and Moses be without Miriam, the sister who ran after the baby in the basket floated down the Nile full of reeds and saw to it that the Egyptian princess who found it and drew it from the water would ask for the foundling’s mother to nurse it? Did not Miriam close the story of the Exodus when she and her maidens raised voice and timbrel in song that followed the song of her brother once they had crossed the Red Sea of reeds and left the Egyptians drowned behind them? And even though she got on her brother’s case for marrying a Cushite woman – the Torah says it was she and Aaron, but it is clear the initiative was hers, for she and not Aaron was punished – Moses had nothing but affection for her, understanding that her meddling was part of her long-standing role as surrogate mother in his life. Indeed, the Torah tells us at the end of Behaalotcha that Moses, informed of the leprosy God had visited upon her for speaking against him, cried out to the Lord to heal her. Heal her now, O God I beseech Thee, shrieked Moses, as the Israelites themselves had shrieked to God in Egypt asking for deliverance. God relented, but had Miriam shut up without the camp for seven days. Moses, however, would not move camp until his sister was brought back into the community.
All this the reader knows and remembers when the news that Miriam has died is so pithily conveyed at the beginning of the second chapter of Chukat. And if we the readers know and remember, we can imagine how much more Moses remembers, remembers and grieves, even as he purifies himself. But his flock spare him little time for grief and remembering. Instead, they too gather round him and Aaron and complain once again, wailing why have you brought us to this desert to die, this place where nothing grows, neither fig nor vine nor pomegranate, and where on top of it there is no water to drink? Again Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, but this time so great is their grief they have nothing to say, not to the people and not to the Lord Who takes matters in hand. Assemble the congregation, God tells the grieving brothers, and speak to the rock that water may flow from it; and shut this people up once and for all, we are wont to add. But Moses was too overcome with grief to pay much heed. He took the rod the Lord had told him to take and before the assembled congregation struck the rock with it, his grief turned to vexation and anger that came out as: Hear ye now, ye rebels, are we to bring water for you out of this rock? For doing this, the Lord then told Moses and Aaron, you too shall not enter the Promised Land, but die in the wilderness. Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, He tells them. And the Torah ends this little story as tersely as it does the story of Miriam’s death: These are the waters of Meribah, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was sanctified in them. Vayikadesh in Kadesh, one might say, for they soon left that place where Miriam died. Nonetheless the phrase is strange. He was sanctified in the waters of Kadesh, the Torah says, but was He? For Moses did not sanctify Him. Instead God had to get Moses’ back, pretend all was cool though Moses had disobeyed and diminished Him. Grief does that to you, and the children of Israel, who gave Moses no quarter, as usual repaid kindness with ingratitude.
Although Moses had not long ago outlined for the children of Israel the laws and ordinances for death and purification, it was as if nothing had registered. No indulgence was shown him when his sister died. Only business as usual, which for the Israelites meant grumbling and complaining, dissing the whole venture to the Promised Land and clamoring to return to Egypt. Once again the Egypt complex rears its ugly head, the national backsliding this time taking its toll on the leader who would make of them a nation. One cannot help thinking how long-lasting this complex endures. Even in our day the media in Israel ceaselessly attack the sitting Prime Minister for the cheapest of reasons, a Prime Minister who does their dirty work but receives no thanks in return. Ingratitude is surely one of the worst of sins, before God, before the duly elected government, before life itself. One purifies oneself in the face of death, the Torah just told us in the opening chapter of Chukat, because above all else one is still alive and the face of man and woman should be turned toward life, not death. Miriam died, but the children of Israel were worried about survival, to which they now turned with nary a word of gratitude for Miriam to Moses and Aaron. Life without gratitude is like grief without grieving. It detracts from all that is holy, leaving God to sanctify Himself, which is no sanctification at all.
Toward the end of the chapter, the Israelites having moved on from Kaseh to Hor Hahar, for the Edomites refused them safe passage through their land, Aaron now dies. But this time the children of Israel allow Moses to take time to grieve. Indeed, they grieve themselves as it is said: the whole congregation saw that Aaron was dead and they wept for Aaron for thirty days, the entire house of Israel.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 16, 2018
Words count. Especially in a text over a thousand pages long, where the themes keep repeating themselves, indeed the very stories, each time with a slightly different wrinkle to hold the reader’s interest and alert him or her to the fact that here we go again. They who forget history are condemned to repeat it, said the philosopher. Repetition compulsion is almost irresistible, said the psychiatrist. The heart of man, created in the image of God, is nonetheless evil from his youth, said the Lord.
We will not go up, said Korach’s henchmen. We will not go up, said the spies. We will not go up, said the children of Israel at the foot of Sinai. And when Moses lost it at this repeated refusal to carry out the covenant which he had nonetheless just finished preserving, he turns to God and says: do not turn Your face to their offering on the morrow; not one ass have I taken from them, nor have I wronged any of them. Fast forward to Samuel Book One. When Samuel had anointed Saul king of Israel, and the Ammonites threatened the people of Jabesh-Gilead, and Saul mustered the men of the kingdom of Israel to combat and victory, yet were there people who questioned his authority, as it is written: And the people said unto Samuel: ‘Who is he that said: Saul shall reign over us? Bring the men, that we may put them to death.’ But Samuel remonstrated with them, reminding them that he had counseled them against having a king, but they insisted and so they had one. As for him, he asked the crowd of murmurers, ‘whose ass have I taken? Whom have I oppressed?’ And Samuel also turned to God and asked Him for a sign, in this case thunder and rain as it was the time of the wheat harvest. And the Lord sent thunder and rain as He had caused the earth to swallow up Korach and his fellow mutineers, and the people were duly chastised and feared for their lives, as the children of Israel were at the end of this terrible chapter of the Great Revolt, crying: ‘Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone.’
But Moses reassured the people as Samuel would reassure them hundreds of years later. Yes, they sinned, both Moses and Samuel admonished the children of Israel, but the Lord will not forsake them for His great name’s sake, as Samuel said, and both men continued to instruct the children of Israel and pray for them. So promised Samuel to the cowering Israelites and so did Moses once Aaron had been confirmed as High Priest when his rod blossomed.
Moses had already defended them even as they revolted against him. Once when the Lord had told Aaron and Moses to separate themselves from the congregation that had gathered when Korach and his kinsmen challenged Moses’ leadership, that He may consume them all lickety-split. Whereupon Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and answered the Lord as Abraham had questioned Him hundreds of years earlier on the matter of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. O God, they asked, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and Thou be wroth with all the congregation? We read these words and recall the words of Abraham: Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly? But the question of Abraham was in vain, for there was not one just man in Sodom. And the words of Moses may have stayed the wrath of the Lord, but not because the Israelites were worth redeeming, any more than Samuel’s assembled band was. They stayed the wrath of the Lord for His name’s sake, as Moses had reminded the Lord when He was bent on wiping out the congregation with the incident of the spies, and as Samuel would explain to the children of Israel as well: For the Lord will not forsake His people for His great name’s sake; because it hath pleased the Lord to make you a people unto Himself.
The second time Moses and Aaron took action to save the Israelite malcontents from themselves occurred right after God had disposed of Korach and all his rebels. When they saw the earth swallow them up, the children of Israel fled in fear. But no sooner had Eleazar the priest taken the brazen fire-pans of the now dead rebels and beat them into a cover for the altar which would serve as a memorial for their sin and a reminder to the children of Israel that none but Aaron and his descendants shall approach the altar, than the children of Israel again gathered against Moses and Aaron and accused them of killing the people of the Lord. This time no words would suffice to appease the Lord’s anger. He at once sent a plague. Moses told Aaron to take his fire-pan, put incense from the altar in it and hold it aloft amidst the people that the plague may be stayed. Only then, the fear of God burned into the people, did the congregation of Israel calm down and cease their complaining, though they did continue to wonder and cry aloud, after Aaron’s claim to the priesthood was vindicated: everyone who comes near the tabernacle of the Lord shall die; have we ceased to perish?
Moses answers them by taking up his teaching. Tell the priests and tell the Levites, the Lord now tells Moses, that I have set them apart. They shall not have a lot in the land, but the priests shall enjoy everything that pertains to the altar, all the heave offerings, the holy things reserved from the fire, the first ripe-fruits, and all that is first from the womb, in kind or redeemed. And the Levites shall receive the tithes, though a tithe of the tithe shall be set aside for the priests. This is how it will be on pain of retribution as you have just witnessed, though the Lord put it thus: Aaron and his descendants will bear the iniquity of the sanctuary and the priesthood, and the Levites will bear the iniquity of service of the tent of meeting. A strange word that, iniquity, given their office, which is to serve in the holiness of God. But once again the Torah reminds us that the covenant is no cake-walk. Its promise has just been preserved at a tremendous price, and the perennial backsliding of the Israelites does not augur well for its future. Samuel himself will be repeating Moses’ words down the centuries: Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you and instruct you; only fear the Lord and serve Him in truth with all your heart. Circumcise your hearts, Moses will tell the children of Israel in Deuteronomy. All the way to his deathbed will he tell them thus, praying and instructing on their behalf and on behalf of us their descendants. Shall we listen? Shall we go up? Shall we conquer the land and preserve it and so preserve the covenant? Shall we bear the iniquity?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 9, 2018
Parashat Shelach lecha
We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have spoken slander, we have counseled evil. Thus the great Yom Kippur prayer when Jews beat their breasts, crying aloud their sins, one of which – slander – starts in this week’s parasha with the spies who gave false report. A land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof, was how they described the Promised Land to their fellow Israelites, and so discouraged them from going up to conquer the land. So the Jews also told Herzl when he first proposed the Jewish state as his solution to the Jewish question. And so today do Jews in the diaspora still labor under this misconception, staying put in the lands that offer them plenty in exchange for denigration of the Jewish state from football pitches to university campuses.
Then too, back in the desert, the Jews not only refused to go up and fight for the land; they also wanted to kill Moses, give themselves another leader and go back to Egypt, goading the Lord to fury. How long, He asked Moses, will I have to bear this evil congregation that keeps murmuring against Me? And the Lord condemned the whole congregation to forty years wandering in the desert until their carcasses fell from their bones. As for the ringleaders, the spies who brought back evil counsel, He sent a plague and dispatched them straight off to their eternal reward.
Moses is surely crestfallen, but he shoulders his burden once again after sweet talking the Lord out of His desire to dispatch the entire lot of Israelites and start anew with him. And taking up his burden he takes up his teaching. When you come into the land of your habitations, he tells the people who are never going to get there, these are the ordinances of the offerings you shall bring in fulfillment of a vow as a sweet savour to the Lord. How ironic is this teaching, not only because he is talking to people condemned to die in the desert, but also because he is talking about the fulfillment of a vow when the children of Israel have just broken theirs. Surely this is how the Torah, without saying a word of commentary, turns the story into saving grace, takes an ordinance about sacrifice and turns it into a vow that God’s favor shall never perish from the face of his beloved Israelites, no matter how great their betrayals, all of Moses’ warnings to come in Deuteronomy notwithstanding. Indeed, Moses then goes on to detail the burnt-offerings that shall be brought when either the entire congregation or one member among them shall err unknowingly. The home-born or the stranger, it makes no difference; one law for all, even unto the entire congregation. And with the offering the congregation shall be forgiven. Atonement shall be dispensed, as we hope for on Yom Kippur when we say, forgive us our sins done knowingly and unknowingly. But he that errs willingly and knowingly, the Lord has Moses tell the children of Israel, his soul shall be cut off from among his people.
There follows the terrible story of a man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath. When the people found him they brought him before Moses, who had him put in a ward until he consulted the Lord over what to do with him. And the Lord told Moses the man shall be put to death and all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp. And so it was. The congregation brought the man outside the camp and stoned him to death. The reader reads this story and is horrified. Who among us has at some point or other not observed the Sabbath as halachic law has ordained? Is stoning to be our punishment? Is every man, possibly every man and woman and child among the Jewish community to gather and raise a stone to lob it against us? Do not the people who would run down the Torah and downplay the sacred tie of the Jews to Israel jump on this story to argue the retrograde character of all religion, making Judaism and the Jewish state morally equivalent to Israel’s enemies?
But however horrific this story, which Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery rewrites two thousand years later, its place in the saga of the Five Books of Moses speaks loudly as a cautionary tale, just as Shirley Jackson’s story does. But the cautionary tale is not what it seems. It is not that an individual Hebrew erred on the Sabbath and should be stoned to death. It is that this story follows on the heels of the entire congregation’s great betrayal of their covenant with God and then again on the teachings of Moses about sacrifice and atonement. Moses outlines three cases: transgression by individuals, transgression by the nation, in each case unknowingly, and transgression by individuals knowingly. But what about knowing transgression by the entire nation? It would seem there is no atonement for that, only retribution. As with the spies, when God sent a plague and condemned the rest to a slow death in the desert. Evil, true evil, is not what is done individually by people dealing with their desires and causing harm, but what is done by entire societies. Yes, people can cause real trouble, but evil unleashed on the world comes from the apex, from socially organized power, even from socially organized religion when turned into an instrument of coercion. Perhaps that is why the rabbis, so Jewish tradition had it, never pronounced a sentence of stoning. Excommunication or its threat sufficed. In the case of the spies, moreover, that is exactly what happened. Communal transgression led to national betrayal with calamitous consequences for the Jews, perpetuating once again the singular transgression at Sinai and weaving it into Jewish political DNA that haunts us to this day. The measure of this transgression can be seen in the fury of the Lord’s reaction.
How unfortunate then that this poor man gathering sticks on the Sabbath should have done it right in the wake of that episode with the spies. Here God had just dealt harshly with the transgressors. Then He had Moses explain the laws of sacrifice and atonement for the fulfillment of vows and sins committed in error, adding the ambiguous phrase for those who sinned knowingly; and their souls shall be cut off from among their people. And this man whose name remains forever a mystery, this no man who is also every man, gets caught by the Israelites breaking the Sabbath’s rules and dragged before Moses. It is as if the people are running to curry favor with Moses, saying: see, we sinned against God refusing to go up and conquer the land, we sinned again by fighting the Amalekites without His consent, but finally we have learned our lesson and shall be vigilant in heeding God’s rules. Here is a man we have found who has broken the Sabbath. And God Who has done everything to try and impress upon His people the importance of keeping the covenant has no choice but to condemn the man as He had spoken. And Moses, who challenged God twice when He had wanted to destroy all of Israel, does not raise his voice against the death sentence either. But God does not let the people off so easily. If you want to cut off the man’s soul, He lets them know, you will have to do it yourselves. I am not sending plague or fire. And so the people have to drag the man outside the camp, gather stones, raise them and hurl them, one by one, and kill him. One can only imagine their reaction, for it is not easy to kill someone like that. They must have felt disgust and loathing, then shame, then terrible regret. They must have then had some inkling of the terrible nature of their own transgression when they slandered the land and their leaders. There was no sacrifice to bring to atone for their horrible deed, only this story written down as a reminder of what not to do and of how national transgression can unleash evil onto the world, swallowing everyone up, even the innocent.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 2, 2018
This parasha starts with the words to Aaron: when thou lightest the lamps. It goes on to describe how the Israelites were to move when they broke camp and set forth on their journey, and ends that part of the story saying: And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’ And when it rested, he said: ‘Return, O Lord, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.’ But immediately thereafter the story recounts how the children of Israel set to wailing once again. First, we are told, there was but murmuring, evil spoken in the ear of the Lord that drew forth his ire, and flames devoured the outer reaches of the camp, suggesting the grumbling was limited to a small section and promptly wiped out. But quickly thereafter the embers of revolt gathered in strength. For in the very next sentence we are told that the mixed multitude fell a lusting and the children of Israel were only too quick to join them. And so begins the terrible tale of the kivrot hataavah, of the graves of lusting.
The mixed multitude are a red herring. The self-righteous would blame them for everything retrograde in the behaviour of the Israelites once they left Egypt: the murmuring, the vacillation, the longing to return, even the monumental transgression of the golden calf. But the fact remains that the Israelites willingly joined in, and as my father used to tell us as children, if someone told you to jump off a bridge into the river, would you do it? No, we are all to blame for the good and the evil we do in life, and especially for the evil, knowingly and even unknowingly. And in the case of the Israelites, the murmuring was so constant and persistent it is difficult to blame it on anybody else. By the time of Korach’s rebellion two parashot hence, we shall see that the murmuring had become full-fledged and was home-grown indeed. The incident of the graves of lusting is but the prelude.
But what a prelude! And how wonderfully is the story told, the prototype for every dispute between children and parents ever since! The Israelites start the ball rolling with the exaggeration typical of children who are frustrated and angry. The issue at hand is the manna, with which they are fed up, having eaten it day and night for over a year now. But they do not limit themselves simply to that complaint. No, they jack up the stakes, turning Egypt into a veritable delicatessen, a land of plenty where they could get anything they wanted: cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic. They even remember the fish they could eat for nothing. Their outrageous statements are a far cry from the plight we read about in both the Torah and the Haggadah, where the Israelites were sorely tasked, their sons thrown into the river, their quotas doubled and tripled so that they cried to God to deliver them from their affliction. Free fish? Hardly. But what will children not say once they are on a roll of anger and rebellion? And of course they did have a point, for the Torah takes time out to tell us how the Israelites collected and prepared the manna, ending with the phrase: and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil. The reader is invited to sympathize. Would you like to eat that as your only food day in and day out for a year? But the Torah’s overarching story also reminds the reader that the Jews had been wanting to return to Egypt as soon as they had left. How quickly we forget, once freed, how miserable our lives had been! How short is our memory, how quick our ingratitude, not only in politics!
And so what happens? The anger of the Lord was kindled, we are told, but it was Moses who was displeased and bust a gut. Moses heard the people weeping and turned on the Lord. How can you deal so ill with me? he asks God. What have I done wrong that You burden me with this bunch of ingrates? Was it my idea to have taken them out of Egypt? Like one spouse at his or her wits’ end talking to another, he too exaggerates, for all this complaining starts to become contagious. Did I conceive this people, he asks the Lord? Did I bring them out of Egypt so that You should tell me: carry them in my bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou didst swear unto their fathers? Whose idea was this to have these kids? the reader can hear Moses wailing to God like one parent to another, knowing full well that the idea was God’s, having read what transpired at the burning bush and remembering how Moses balked at God’s summons. But that too is a red herring every bit as much as the mixed multitude, for Moses signed on to the task and had his reasons for doing so. Nonetheless, one hears in his lament to God the exasperation of every parent at one point or another. Why did I have these kids? Why did I ever listen to you and agree to have another child? Even this one is more than a handful! So out of his tree is Moses that he tells the Lord he is no longer able to bear this people. Meat they want, and where do you think I am going to find meat for them all? They are driving me crazy and I am exhausted. If this is how You are going to deal with me, do me a favor and kill me right now; You will be doing me a favor. And Moses ends almost in tears, if not in tears themselves, when he says: and let me not look upon my wretchedness.
The reader is totally sympathetic, and so is God, the co-parent in this situation. And God, like the reader, responds with suggestions to lighten Moses’ load and take some of the pressure off him. Which ought to be a reminder to us that when parents are at their wits’ end, it does little good to start blaming them. What they need is to vent and feel the listener is on their side, even when the listener is the spouse. God as therapist, no less! And so God tells Moses to gather seventy men who have the confidence of the people, elders and officers, and He will come down and take some of the spirit which is upon Moses and put it upon them, that they may share his burden dealing with the people. What does the contemporary phrase say: it takes a village to raise a child? Imagine an entire nation! As for the people themselves, the Lord has other plans. If they want meat, He tells Moses, they shall have meat, for they have wept in the ears of the Lord – the phrase He uses is the same the Torah describes at the outset of this chapter: and the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord – and what is worse, as far as God is concerned, is that they compounded their complaint, which might be understandable, with the lie that it was well with them in Egypt. Now it is God’s turn to be out of His tree. And once again we see the dynamic between children and parents spiralling out of control, which ought to be a lesson for children as well as parents not to exaggerate and push things too far.
Meat they want and meat they shall have, said the Lord, and not for one day or five or ten, but for a whole month, until literally it comes out of their ears, thought the phrase in the Torah is at your nostrils. And again the Lord explains why: because they wept and rejected Him saying: why did we come forth out of Egypt? The phrase is like a dagger through God’s heart, much like the phrase a child hurls at his parent: ‘why was I born? I did not choose that; you did.’ Even the Lord, it seems, has limits to His infinite mercy, and perhaps it is a good thing He does, or human beings would think they can get away with anything.
Moses now comforted turns to the Lord in wonder. I have six hundred thousand souls on my hand, he tells God. How on earth will I feed them for a day, let alone a whole month? But the Torah puts it poetically as usual: If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them? Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them? And the Lord answers equally poetically: Is the Lord’s hand waxed short? What the Lord promised then transpired. Seventy elders gathered at the Tent of Meeting. The Lord descended and took of the spirit that was upon Moses and shared it with them. Then the Lord sent forth a wind and brought quails from the sea which He let fall upon the Israelite camp. There was so much quail that he that gathered the least gathered ten heaps of quail. But while the flesh was yet between their teeth and ere it was chewed, the Torah tells us, the people were stricken with a plague and many people died, hence the name the graves of lusting. And the Israelites buried the dead, so the chapter ends, and journeyed unto Hazeroth, where they abode for a while, where more trouble awaited Moses and more food for thought awaits the reader.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 26, 2018
In this numbering of the Levite clans and their duties, and in the numbering of the princes of the twelves tribes and their offerings for the dedication of the altar, one other category is also mentioned – the Nazirite – and the laws governing his conduct are elaborated. The Nazirite is a man who vows to consecrate himself to the Lord. He is part of the community and yet apart, distinct in that he has decided for a certain period of his life, perhaps even for his entire life, to devote himself to the service of the Lord in one form or another.
There are three rules governing a Nazirite’s conduct. He shall abstain from wine and strong drink. He shall let his hair grow and not take a razor to his locks. He shall not come into contact with the dead, not even when they are members of his own family. If by chance the latter happens he shall shave his head for seven days, and on the eighth bring two turtle doves or two young pigeons to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting as a sin-offering and a burnt-offering to atone for his defilement. He may then renew his vow, but the preceding times do not count toward its fulfillment, for his consecration had been defiled. Moreover, when his term as a Nazirite has reached its end, he must also bring offerings to the Lord – burnt, sin and peace offerings – and then shave his head, the shorn hair subsequently placed under the sacrifice of the peace offerings. After that the priest shall take the shoulder of the ram brought for the peace offering, together with the unleavened cake and wafer, and put them upon the hands of the Nazirite. Then the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the Lord and the Nazirite shall be released from his vow.
The most famous Nazirite in the Bible is Samson. But he himself did not utter his vow; his mother did it for him. And she did it because, it is said in Judges, an angel appeared to her and told her that though she was barren, she shall conceive, and when she does, her son shall be consecrated as a Nazirite unto God from the womb. Samson’s story was echoed in that of Samuel, the most famous judge in ancient Israel. His mother too was barren, but she prayed to the Lord when, accompanying her husband every year, she went up to the sanctuary in Shiloh. There she poured her heart out to God and promised Him that if He gave her a child, she would give him to the Lord all the days of his life. So bitterly did she cry unto God the priest thought she was drunk. Hannah answered him that she had drunk neither wine nor strong drink. Out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken, she told him, and the priest blessed her, hoping God would grant her wish. Hannah returned home and did conceive, and when her son was weaned she brought him to the house of the Lord and told the priest who had wished her well that she was keeping her promise. As long as he lives, she told the priest Eli, he shall be devoted to the Lord. And so he was, ruling Israel nearly all the days of his life, and saving them from the Philistines as Samson had done before him, though their means of doing so differed; and unlike Samson, Samuel’s locks, as far as we know, were never cut from his consecrated head.
But serving the Lord did not prove easy, not for Samson and not for Samuel. One may explain that in part by the fact that neither of them took the oath of the Nazirite. Their consecration to the Lord was the work of their mothers, who gave them in service to God in exchange for God’s blessing them with a child. Whereas in this parasha the text clearly starts off by saying: when either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the Lord… Can a parent decide thus for a child when still in the womb? Is not dedicating oneself to the Lord, for a lifetime or even part of a lifetime, such a serious endeavour it ought only to be undertaken by the person who has to fulfill the vow? Or do not the stories of Samson and Samuel rather indicate how difficult consecrating oneself to God turns out to be, even with the best of intentions and even with the power of parental authority and maternal love and encouragement behind one? Not for nothing are the regulations that govern such decisions detailed in this parasha so strict, even if they appear simple. A Nazirite does not comport himself as others do. He does not give himself up to the simple pleasures of other men. He may not commiserate with the bereft as others are free to do in times of sorrow. He stands apart from the ordinary fellowship by his distinctive hairstyle. And if for some reason he succumbs, intentionally or not, to transgression, his vow is annulled and he must atone for it, even start all over again if he so wishes, as if all his previous sacrifice were in vain.
Samson succumbed to his sexual desire for Delilah. Samuel succumbed to his desire to have his sons succeed him in the judgeship. And we too, each time we resolve to follow in the ways of the Lord, find we fail in our resolution, waylaid by the promptings of the heart that catch us awares and unawares. For it is difficult to devote oneself to the Lord and to follow in His ways. It is difficult to surmount the passions and dedicate oneself to a path we know in our minds to be of use and worth to others, albeit at the cost of our simple pleasures. It is difficult to rid ourselves of the well-worn shibboleths and stake out a position that goes against the grain, even if it keeps us holy. Look at the Jews, who have had trouble keeping to the covenant ever since they danced around the molten calf at Sinai; who even then opted for a two-state solution. And they are not alone, as God knows. As Spinoza knew. As we know when we bring our offerings of atonement over and over throughout a lifetime; and no one more than the Nazirite of sorts who would launch his or her compatriots on a path that demands the courage to sacrifice, freely, openly, with good cheer. A man like Moses, no less.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 19, 2018
The teaching of the laws of Sinai had, for now, been concluded, so the Lord set Moses about some practical tasks, like numbering the males twenty years and older who were able to go to war, then organizing them by tribes in camp formation. But not the Levites, God told Moses, for they are Mine. Indeed, God explains, all the first-born of Israel are Mine, because as soon as I smote the first-born of Egypt, both man and beast, all the first-born of Israel became Mine. Mine they shall be; I am the Lord, He told Moses. Simple as that.
There was of course organizational method to this commandment to keep the Levites apart, for they were to serve Aaron and his priests in the work of the Sanctuary. As we shall see, moving upwards of six hundred thousand people and keeping them safe was no easy task, but neither was moving the Sanctuary with all its furniture, vessels and accoutrements. Reserving the Levites for this work which far exceeded what the priests could do on their own was therefore an astute move. But it was also more than that, for it reminded the entire body of the Hebrew nation in waiting what lay at its heart: holiness carved out of difference and holiness that sanctified it. Yes, there was the people, but within them the tribes organized for military formation, and within them the priestly class organized for temple service, separated out from the Levite tribe which assisted them. Thus was the difference with which God started the universe rolling reproduced in the social organization of the ancient Hebrews. And in case they missed the point, the Lord drove it home by reminding them that in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, He once again was creating difference: one nation plucked out from amidst another to set history rolling in another direction. To drive the point home even further and more sharply, God reserved the Levites for Himself to remind the Israelites of that seminal moment, the Levites being but the stand-in for all the first-born Israelite males.
For all the-first born are Mine, the text says. And indeed they are, for the Lord has Moses number both the first-born of the Levites and the first-born of the entire congregation of Israel. It turns out there are two hundred and seventy-three more first-born Israelites than first-born Levites. Which means even while reserving the first-born of the Levites for service to the Lord, their number did not suffice to redeem all the first-born of the Israelites. Therefore, the Lord told Moses, you will have to collect a tax from the entire congregation amounting to five shekel a head for the first-born of the Israelites above and beyond the first-born of the Levites and bring it to Aaron and his sons. Redemption money, it was called, ensuring symbolically that every first-born male of the Israelites was counted as belonging to the Lord. And ensuring thereby that every Israelite family would remember that the Lord was their God Who brought them out of Egypt to be His people.
So successful was this policy innovation that it has lasted to this very day in the ritual of pidyon haben, the redemption of the first-born boy, with which Jews even in our time mark the arrival of their first-born son. It is a shame the Temple no longer exists and the Israeli government is reluctant to rebuild it. Were it standing, the Jews world over could give their five shekels to the Temple to mark the occasion instead of funneling the money to the charity of their choice. That way the Jews would once again be consecrating not only the birth of their sons, but also the birth of their nation, reminding themselves and reminding God that they are indeed His and celebrating the purpose for which long ago He brought them out of Egypt.
Looked at from the other end, the ritual of pidyon haben, of redemption of the son, stands in our day as a reminder that we ought to rebuild the Temple; that it is a national disgrace that the holiest site in Judaism is given over to the Muslims who seek our destruction, those same Muslims who refuse us the right to ascend the Temple Mount and pray there while the Jewish government aids and abets them in their intolerance. Indeed, the obligation to redeem the first-born son reminds us of our obligation to assert our national sovereignty, to make Jerusalem the true and sole capital of Israel; and how can that be done if the Jewish Temple does not shine forth from its heart as the Sanctuary stood at the centre of the Israelite camp in the wilderness? Thus do the words of the Torah uttered so long ago in the desert still resound. For you are Mine, the Lord said. It is now up to us to see if we want to be counted and redeem the nation as the first-born were redeemed by the Lord.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 12, 2018
Ah, the curses! Who cannot fail to love them? Certainly Shakespeare did, for he used them as his palimpsest for the curses the dowager Queen Margaret spews forth on Richard the Third in the play of that name, showing once again how the Hebrew Bible has long served as the template of western literature.
If you walk in My statutes, the parasha begins, if you keep My commandments and do them, then will I give you rains in their seasons, the land shall be fruitful and you shall live there in peace and unafraid. But if you reject My statutes and follow not My commandments, then I shall do this unto you, the Lord proclaims to the children of Israel through his trusted servant Moses; and there follows a string of curses which takes away our breath but commands our literary admiration.
For what does God say? I shall appoint terror over you, consumption and fever that will make your eyes fail and your soul languish. You will sow seed in vain for your enemies will eat it. Your enemies will dominate you and you will flee when none pursue you. Your heaven will be iron, your earth brass, and the land shall not yield her fruit. I will send the beasts of the field among you that shall rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you few in number. I will send the sword and pestilence against you and break the staff of your bread. Ten women shall bake bread in one oven and yet you shall go hungry. In short, your ways shall become desolate. And if none of the above suffice to get you to change your ways I will chastise you even more, seven times more for your sins. You will eat the flesh of your sons and daughters. I will destroy your idol-worshipping sanctuaries and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of those same idols, for of course you will have broken your covenant with Me in that way which I find abhorrent. My souls shall abhor you, God forewarns. I will make your cities waste and bring the land into desolation and scatter you among the nations. Then finally shall the land know the sabbath which you denied it. While for the remnant of you that shall live in exile, terror shall fill your lives. Faint of heart will they be in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a leaf shall chase them and they shall flee when none pursueth. And they shall perish in the land of their enemies, while those that remain shall pine away in their iniquities and in the iniquities of their fathers.
But then perchance, God dangles the out before them, they may come to confess their iniquities and regret their treachery that caused me to walk contrary to them as they walked contrary to Me, and perchance their uncircumcised heart will be humbled as they undergo their punishment. Then shall I remember My covenant with Jacob and with Isaac and even with Abraham, and so I shall remember the land, and so in the land of their enemies I shall not reject them entirely, nor will I abhor them to destroy them utterly and break My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of Egypt; and for their sakes I shall remember the covenant with their ancestors.
And so it came to pass and so it was, over and over in Jewish history down to our day. For who can read these curses and not think of all the calamities that have befallen our people, and yet a remnant has always survived and eventually returned to the land, the land which God always remembers and has given in perpetuity to His people that they may become a nation, a holy nation, for which He brought them out of Egypt. And so at the end of time as in the beginning, God remembers His covenant as He told Moses when He revealed Himself to him at the burning bush before the great Exodus had occurred which was to fashion this nation and seal the covenant which would found it.
But not only God remembers; His people do too. They remember it in spite of all their backsliding, in spite of their double dealing that started at Sinai and continues to this day as they balk at signing on to being a nation, preferring to remain a tribe whose members delude themselves into thinking that alone will suffice to grant them respite and peace; yea even in the lands of their enemies. And the people remember, however small in number, because the Torah is handed down from one generation to the next where the next generation of Jews can read over and over the warnings and prophecies of Bechukotai that have come to pass and decide if they will now put an end to the waywardness of their people. Herzl remembered and discovered the Torah he had never learned in his youth. The Zionists remembered and returned to the land, worked it, cherished it, and reclaimed it as a Jewish state. And now today their descendants are faced with the same question that God posed to their forefathers in this parasha: will you walk in the ways of the Lord and adhere to the covenant or will you walk contrary to the Lord and lose the land yet again? Will you finally live up to that covenant at Sinai which made of the Jews a nation and the land of Israel the place where that nation will assume and defend its sovereignty – that covenant which has inspired so many other nations and so many other peoples and so many other literatures to cherish what is good and decent and lovely in the eyes of the law, and of God, and of the men and women created in His image?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 5, 2018
Speak, the Lord says to Moses, speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron and tell them the host of injunctions they need to respect in order to maintain their holiness. And the Lord goes through the list: no contact with the dead, no cutting of their flesh, no marriage with other than virgins. Nor shall a priest who officiates before the Lord be blemished physically in any manner. Nor shall he be unclean in any manner proscribed by statute. Furthermore, care must be taken when giving of the holy food to members of his household: no common man, no daughter married to a common man, no stranger, no tenant, no hired servant may eat thereof. And when an Israelite brings a freewill offering to the Temple the animal too shall be free of any blemish. And you shall take care to eat the sacrifice within the prescribed time. There is more, of course, for there is always more, God being in the details. But always the same reasoning and justification: because I am the Lord, your Lord, Who brought you out of Egypt, Who hallowed you and continue to hallow you. And so you shall hallow Me.
And when God is finished with His instructions to the priests He proceeds to tell Moses to address the children of Israel and instruct them in the proper conduct of the festivals they are to observe. He starts with the Sabbath. Six days shall you work, but the seventh day is a day of solemn rest, a holy day unto the Lord. From there God goes on to list the major festivals with their rules and rituals: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and then Sukkot, all appointed seasons of the Lord, holy convocations shall you proclaim them. And why, the reader may ask? At the end comes the answer, for Sukkot as for all the holidays, which are holidays because they are holy days: that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. And Moses, the Torah tells us, declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord.
Here is the Jewish people wrapped up in a phrase. Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord and ever since then we have been observing them. Jews brought sacrifices to the Temple of old. When the last Temple was destroyed Jews observed the holy days in prayer, fasting and feasting. Down the generations they observed them, and their observance kept them holy, kept them a people, kept their purpose. Even today, even in the breach they observe them, lighting candles on Shabbat, blessing the wine and the bread, resting on the Sabbath if they do not do the above, sinning on the Sabbath when they see other Jews who keep it. And so it is with the other holy days, gathering around the Seder table at Passover, studying on the night of Shavuot, building booths at Sukkot or seeing the booths of neighbors and longing to sit in one, bless the wine in one, eat some cake in one. On the New Year they listen to the blowing of the shofar. On Yom Kippur they wish each other a good fast, even when they do not fast. For there are always Jews who observe the holidays to keep the other Jews holy, as the priests were obliged to a higher degree of holiness that the children of Israel may remain holy. And thus are we all bound up in the glory of the Lord everlasting. Thus do we maintain our peoplehood until once again we are gathered into our homeland, the Jewish state.
How silly then it is to argue about whether Israel is and should be a Jewish state. It is the Jewish state, the only one, and the religious observances which have bound the Jewish people for thousands of years are part and parcel of that state. Which is why any Jew who visits Israel on Shabbat comes quickly to understand how the entire country is also one big synagogue, a holy land enjoining holiness on those who walk it as one day long ago the patriarch Abraham once walked it. Secular or religious, strictly or loosely observant, a Jew in the Jewish land feels it, senses it, rejoices in it, bows his or her head in wonderment at how the appointed seasons of the Lord, which Moses long ago declared unto the people of Israel, have sustained us to this day.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 28, 2018
Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
After the death of Aaron’s two sons, this parasha starts, the Lord spoke unto Moses and had him speak to Aaron with instructions about the yearly sacrifices of atonement for the entire congregation of Israel. But the Lord had already spoken to Moses at length since Aaron’s two sons had died, all about prescriptions he had to impart to Aaron about his role as physician as well as priest. No mention was made during the preceding two parashot of the death of Aaron’s two sons, but now suddenly they are recalled again. And what does the Torah say of them now? Not that they burned improper incense in a pan, but that they drew near before the Lord and died. Which allows Moses to segue into the time Aaron is permitted to draw near to the Lord. Not every day, Aaron is told, for the Lord appears in the cloud above the ark-cover. Only on the holiest of days is Aaron to come into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark. And then follow the instructions for the sacrifices Aaron is to carry out on his behalf and on behalf of the children of Israel. Otherwise he is to keep his distance, that he die not from too close contact with the Lord.
Once again we see the importance of knowing one’s place. One wants to come close to the Lord, feel His presence, know that He walks among us. That way we too can say we walk with God. But walking with God is not the same as sharing His place. What God sees from His vantage point about us is precisely what we cannot see about us from ours. If we could, we would have no need of Him. That difference resounds in the first story of Genesis, when God ambled through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam after he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Where are you? God asked Adam. And Adam replied he was hiding because he was afraid. Of course, he was afraid, not only because he had transgressed, but because in transgressing he caught a glimpse of what God sees when He looks about upon the world. He had come closer to God and in the process gained knowledge that overwhelmed him. What did Stephen Hawking call mastering string theory, if not getting to understand the mind of God? Of course, Stephen Hawking meant by that understanding how the universe works, for he clearly misunderstood to the day he died the mind of God when it came to the existence of the State of Israel. His comment however, does shed some light on what drawing closer to God means.
God is the place we cannot occupy. That is why His Place is called The Place, Hamakom. But as we draw near to Him we begin to see the need for a place we cannot occupy. As we draw near, we see the importance of difference, of the immeasurable gap between us and Him, but also of the need to be aware that when we observe ourselves and our conduct, we need to remember the point from which we observe. For from our observations come judgments, and from judgments decisions about what to do. Many people besides Stephen Hawking make judgments about Israel that are totally erroneous. They look at Israel’s predicament and make judgments about Israel and her neighbors that have nothing to do with what is going on in the Middle East, but everything to do with the way they think the world works, seen from the narcissism of their living rooms and studies in the western world. This leads to disastrous policies that can even be described as evil. Stephen Hawking, after all, boycotted an academic conference in Israel to support the Palestinian thugs in Judea and Samaria. He was doing what so many other otherwise intelligent people do: rooting for the underdog in his knee-jerk reaction on behalf of the seeming oppressed as described by his colleagues, so he said. The good academics of Cambridge, like the leaders of the western world, are clueless about the Muslim world, let alone the Jewish world, yet offer us a storyline to dictate how we should view it that is rooted in their own take on the world they cannot get beyond. It is a view that owes its overall framework to a picture that is now so outdated it is laughable, a cross between Downton Abbey and Karl Marx, however much they would protest it is not so. And so they wind up denigrating the only democracy in the Middle East, decry the deaths of hoodlums from Gaza who marched on Israel to attack the Jewish state with genocidal demands, molotov cocktail kites, and burning tires to use as smokescreens for infiltration into the country. The same western voices, along of course with their Palestinian proteges, were silent when it came to the Syrian regime and its allies’ massacre of thousands of Palestinians in their refugee camps. Of course they were silent, because, as my favorite sociologist Niklas Luhmann used to say, you can only see what you can see.
And so we come back to the importance of place, which entails knowing from whence you see. Aaron was not allowed to see what God sees, but he was allowed to get close enough to understand what God sees is not what he sees every day, and therefore ought to pay attention to what God says. It might, in fact, prove beneficial. Certainly, it is worth considering. And so every day Aaron got to get close to God, but not too close; got to sacrifice the daily offerings and meditate on their significance, but did not get burned in the process. We too learn this lesson from worship. Aaron does for the people what God does for Aaron. Sacrifice, prayer, becomes a meditation on the importance of difference, a reflection on the perspective from which you observe the world, and an understanding that one can even observe the different takes on things different actors have without assuming they are equivalent. There is no observational or moral equivalency between Israelis and Palestinians, the Jewish and Muslim worlds, certainly not when it comes to Israel’s survival, let alone legitimacy. Choosing wrongly leads to sin and death. But people choose wrongly all the time and do not know it.
Enter the Day of Atonement. Enter the two goats who are brought to the holy place where atonement is made for the sins not only of Aaron, who daily comes close to God, but also of the entire nation of Israel. Their sins may not even be known, but given the tendency of humans to overstep their boundaries, to dig in where they should be more ready to observe and change their minds, it is safe to say that sins have been committed. In the case of Israel, all those American Jews who voted twice for Obama and once for Clinton even as the two of them threw Israel under a bus and all those Israeli Jews who still delude themselves into thinking they are the cause of Palestinian anger are Jews who have committed the sin of faulty observation. Of confusing places that should not be confused. Of allowing a situation to continue where every year Jews mourn more Jews who died simply because they lived in the Jewish state. And so, it is written in the Torah, after all the sacrifices have been made, Aaron is to take the second goat, chosen by lot, and send it into the wilderness. Before he does so, however, he shall place his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over him all the sins of the children of Israel. Then the goat shall be sent away to a land that is cut off from where the Israelites live, bearing their sins with him, taking them away from that place which they had so much trouble seeing and enjoying as they ought to, as the Lord had warned them of time and time again throughout the Torah. With the goat goes the hope that last year’s mistakes will not be repeated. That Israelis will stop trying to bring the perspective of Gaza into their own land. And that people the world over will see the two perspectives are neither disagreements among pre-schoolers, nor the antinomies of oppressor and oppressed. But atonement is not enough without the attempt to change, and change only starts by drawing nearer to God.
It is worth getting closer to God if only to see what we cannot see. It is worth getting closer to Him in order to understand why He commands us to do what He does. Holiness is not our domain, but the domain of the Lord. In Kedoshim He commands us to be holy. In Acharei Mot He provides for our failure to do so.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 21, 2018
This double parasha is startling when you think of it. Nothing short of a medical treatise written in the middle of the Sinai desert, as if this was what the ancient Hebrews needed most. But it was, for even in the desert people get sick, contagion can run rampant, and one must know what to do. How prescient then the Torah is to explain the courses of treatment for different lesions and issues to which the body may suddenly give rise. And how wise to combine the power to diagnose illness with the power to heal the spirit in the person of the High Priest. For those who argue that to heal the body without healing the spirit is counter-productive, they would find willing agreement in these two parashot. And by interweaving medical prescription with ritual office the Torah ensured that for generations Jews would gravitate to the medical profession, an art and science that is as close to holiness as it gets. One might even assert that the notorious Jewish preoccupation with health and illness – Jews, after all, must have been the inventors of the second opinion – has its roots here in the Torah. If it is good enough for the High Priest, it is good enough for me, every Jew must reason, though it never hurts to get one more consultation.
Today we have that luxury. The Hebrews in the desert did not. Their journey was fraught with danger. Attack from without was always a threat. Grumbling from within was always possible. And disease could strike at any time. So once the priests were consecrated and their ritual duties carried out, Moses went on to assign them those of medical diagnostician and practitioner. For those who think there is too much ritual in the Book of Leviticus, they might give pause to the thought that it was not only sacrifices that required detail; so did medical ailments and prescriptions. Thus is there a line running through the last few chapters – laws of sacrifice, dietary laws of kashrut, laws of the body’s waywardness. And so even here, in Tazria and Metzora, there is preoccupation with difference: the difference between the holy and the profane, between the clean and unclean, between the healthy and the sick, reminding us once again how difference is so intimately related to function, enabling us to distinguish between what works and what does not, if only we have the eyes and the mind and the heart to see. The Torah, in its frankness, shows itself once again to be devoid of moralism and cant. It would be good if we could do as well.
And yet at the very beginning of this double parasha we read of the different prescriptions for women who give birth, depending on the sex of the child. If she gives birth to a boy, she is unclean for the first seven days following childbirth, and then shall continue in her purification rites for three and thirty days, unable during that time to come into contact with any hallowed thing or enter the sanctuary. If she gives birth to a girl, however, she is considered unclean for the first two weeks following childbirth and continues in her purification rights for sixty-six days, double the number of days in the case of a son. In either case, when her days of purification are fulfilled, she is to bring a burnt offering and a sin-offering to the priest, who will make atonement for her. Right away questions leap from the page. Why is a woman considered unclean for giving birth? It is not a sickness. Why must she make atonement after a waiting period of thirty-three or sixty-six days? Giving birth is neither a sin, nor a transgression. And why should the purification period be different according to the sex of the child?
There are no easy or ready answers to these questions. It may be that childbirth was considered such a risky business that imperilled the life of the mother – after all, so many women died from childbirth before the advent of modern surgical and medical knowledge – that it was necessary to ensure a woman rested up and restored her strength afterwards. Hence the proscribed extensive waiting period, where women were not to return at once to their daily rounds. Nothing short of declaring them unclean would enforce that rule. But all that is conjecture, and legitimation after the fact. The fact remains that she is considered impure, unclean, simply for bearing a child, and the length of time she is so considered varies with the sex of the child. On the face of it these laws make no sense. On the face of it, but below the surface much is stirring. The trauma of recent Pharaonic Egypt is still very much in the minds of the Israelites, where boys were ordered strangled and thrown into the river. Boys, it is generally accepted, are more fragile than girls. They may have more brawn, but for the rest they are usually outclassed at almost every stage of development. Sons need their mothers even more than daughters do, though the bonds between mothers and sons are not quite as complicated as the bonds between mothers and daughters. Perhaps the Torah is signifying to us that gender counts, and the way the different sexes relate to their parents, also differentiated by gender, count even more, which means we should pay attention. How it all works out differs by family situation, but how it works out affects quite a bit how we turn out.
Who knew? we say after we have engendered children. Who knew how complicated it all would be, how difficult, how time-consuming and perplexing? Why are boys so stupid at adolescence and why are girls so complicated? And yet who would barter their children away for anything in the world? How marvelous, we also say, at the miracle of childbirth and years later at what has become of the children, so varied, so different, so strange and recognizable at once. We may even on occasion wonder if it all has been a mistake, but then we think of a world without children and know it is never a mistake. Perhaps that is why the woman must bring atonement: to atone for the mistake that is never a mistake, to forestall all the grief that the leap of faith into the unknown world of family can entail, to remind us that sacrifice goes into the making of happiness. And the woman does this because we are all of woman born, a messy business indeed.
But all this speculation does not offer satisfying answers to this text which disturbs. To which we can only say: it is good that the text disturbs. It makes us think. It forbids us to whitewash the text so that it conforms to contemporary orthodoxy. It also forbids us to legitimate prescriptions we find jolting by saying that’s how it was back in those days. The Torah is a package deal that speaks to us on many levels, even those which may remain for a time merely liminal. Which is why we read and reread it, year after year.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 14, 2018
On the eighth day, so the story unfolds, after the week Aaron and his sons had spent following their consecration, Moses calls them over and has them now carry out the sacrifices for which they were anointed. And so, we read, Aaron and his sons duly officiated at their duties, slaughtering the animals, sprinkling the blood, smoking the innards and fat on the fire, waving the breast and the right thigh before the Lord. And when they were through Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, signifying that he was now the High Priest and able to relieve Moses of that duty. It was the beginning of the separation of religious and political leadership which was to be a hallmark of the Hebrew confederacy of ancient Israel, however much it was periodically ignored and subverted. Without it we would not have all those stories in Kings where prophets thundered at royal wrongdoing – Nathan to David, Elijah to Ahab, Isaiah and Jeremiah to a slew of monarchs – even if backsliding occurred, to which the hapless disintegration of the Hasmonean dynasty attests. In this respect too, Judaism acted as a leaven for what many, many centuries later came to be known as the rise of the West and the emergence of the rule of law, when sixteenth century Europe saw the beginnings of the separation of Church and State. Jean Bodin. Henry VIII. But way before them Moses and Aaron.
After Aaron and his sons had performed their duties, we read, Aaron and Moses went into the tent of meeting, came out and blessed the people, whereupon the glory of the Lord appeared unto the people. Fire flew out from the glory and consumed the burnt-offering and the fat, and the people were dumbfounded and humbled, which the Torah conveys by saying they fell on their faces. The image is startling and vivid. Fire as light, fire as white-hot anger, fire as the terrible power of God. The scene is reminiscent of Sinai where fire and smoke thundered atop the mountain from which the voice of the Lord spoke and the people trembled and shrank from the awesomeness they encountered. Once again the Torah repeats, calling to mind a seminal situation via the images and words to which the text frequently has recourse. There is something incandescent here, something impossible to fathom that can only be conveyed through metaphor: the immeasurable distance between God and man, the difference between the glory of the universe and the humble meanderings of human individuals. In short, the ineffable, translated here into what James Joyce once called the ineluctable modality of the visible.
As if to underline that point, the Torah then goes on to relate at once the terrible story of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who, we are told, offered strange fire before the Lord. In return the Lord sent forth fire that devoured them, and they died. Literally, they were consumed, perishing by tampering with the very element that signified God’s glory. Aaron and his sons had just completed their duties. There was no need to take more incense and light their pans. Indeed, they had finished their tasks and the people had seen the glory of the Lord at the conclusion of the ceremony. Nadav and Avihu were in effect playing with fire, crossing boundaries which are not to be crossed. That is the import of their death and that is the import of this story. It is not, as many people may suppose, a matter of a vengeful Lord taking out His anger on His subjects for a mere peccadillo. It was a case of two priests deliberately transgressing the ordained ritual right after they had carried it out, cheapening the moment, blending the moment of transcendence with individual caprice. It was as if they were saying: see, there is no gap between us humans and the Lord, the ineffable is simply a magic trick, anyone can put incense in a pan and set it alight. Why do you tremble and fall on your faces before the glory of the Lord? Indeed, why do you think there is anything more to life than what we do ourselves? At the heart of their action therefore lies the question: is not man the measure of all things?
This is a question of sociological and not simply metaphysical import. If people think there is nothing more than themselves by which to measure their actions, then all hell breaks loose. As a character in the film Wallenberg once said when asked if he believed in God: I fear for a world when men forgot they created a God Who created them in His image. Not for nothing is the Hebrew God also known as Hamakom, The Place. His Place is indeed a place men cannot occupy, and when they forget that, they forget that the world, society, community, is a place that exists over and above them, to which they owe a due. They may not be able to see it any more clearly than they can see God, but they feel it, experience it, carry it with them in their expectations about how the world functions, and every now and then they may even glimpse its glory. Woe to those who would obliterate this difference and efface the ineffable.
This too is what God tells Aaron after he and his sons were forbidden to mourn for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, but ordered to stay within the tent of meeting, for they bore upon their bodies the holy oil of consecration. Furthermore, He tells them, you are not to drink wine or spirits when you go into the tent of meeting, that ye may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and thereby teach that lesson to the children of Israel.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of March 24, 2018
How vivid is the description of Aaron’s investiture in this week’s Torah reading! In the middle of this desert of rocky mountain and wadi, the Sanctuary resplendent in gold, Moses clothes Aaron in his priestly finery, anoints him with oil, and takes the bullock of the sin offering and the ram of consecration which he duly slaughters and smokes upon the altar as a sweet savour to the Lord. Nor does he forget to take the right thigh and the breast of the ram and wave them as a wave offering before the Lord. Then mixing the anointing oil with the blood upon the altar, Moses sprinkles the ochre red liquid upon Aaron and his garments and upon Aaron’s sons and their garments. Whereupon Aaron and his sons boil the flesh to be eaten at the door of the tent of meeting and take as well the bread in the basket of consecration and eat it, burning that which remains with fire. Seven days and nights do they abide at the door of the tent of meeting until their consecration is fulfilled. For so am I commanded, Moses tells them at the end of this ceremony, that ye die not.
The reader cannot avoid seeing what transpires in his or her mind, so sharp and clear is the narration of this priestly consecration. It is all the more striking given the backdrop against which this all transpires. Gold and dust, the hallowed sanctification and the wilderness stretching to the horizon, the splendor of the ceremony and the recent history of sin and complaining of which we read throughout the book of Exodus. One marvels at it all, at the smoke rising from the altar, at the sweet savour mounting to the nostrils of the Lord which calls to mind previous such scenes: Cain and Abel, Noah after the Flood, the furnace of Sodom and Gomorrah, even Sinai itself. One imagines Moses holding aloft the thigh and the breast and waving it before the people, waving it to heaven, and one imagines how all that will look when the children of Israel have entered the land and conquered it, have established the Temple therein and gone up to worship the Lord three times a year. And if we can imagine that we can also imagine how this whole ceremony will look when once again the Temple is rebuilt in the heart of Jerusalem and Jews everywhere come up to celebrate the holy days of their calendar.
Of course, times have changed and so have practices of worship. Prayer replaced sacrifice a long time ago. Reform movements have entered the Jewish religious world, making religious Judaism anything but monolithic. Dynastic rivalries are not unknown even among Hasidic branches, and the collapse of the Hasmonean dynasty two millennia ago still stands as a reminder of the dangers of combining synagogue and state. Even those movements fiercely dedicated to rebuilding the Temple today need to think through the mechanisms by which it would be run. Who would own it? Who would finance it? Who would select those who officiate there? How long would their term of office be? This and so much more needs discussion before such a project would be seriously undertaken. Yet who would not be stirred to see smoke rise from spits in the courtyard of a rebuilt Temple, attend the consecration of those who would lead services there, smell the sweet savour offered once again to the Lord? Who can read of this splendid ceremony in the desert when Jews were still a band of refugees from Pharaonic Egypt, but ordered to dream of the Promised Land and the society of holiness they were to carve out there, who can read of it and not dream how once again we may witness this ceremony in the rebuilt Sanctuary of the Lord?
This is the law of the burnt offering, Moses told the children of Israel, and of the meal offering and of the sin offering. It is a law everlasting, unto all generations. And so it is, not only because Moses commanded it, but because Moses accomplished it and the Torah described it in all its details during this investiture of Aaron as High Priest. The report is not hearsay but on the spot description, no different from modern day news reports of royal and presidential ceremonies. Reading it in the Torah we can see it as if we were there, just as we are enjoined to read the Passover story and imagine it as if we were leaving Egypt that terrible night on the fourteenth of the first month. The writing brings it all alive and thus invests us with a longing for a new investiture. If the Jews could do it once in the desert and twice in their own land, the second time after they returned from the Babylonian exile, why should and would we not do it again now that we have returned from our second exile and reconquered the land? Why not rebuild the Temple and turn it into the national synagogue of the Jewish people, a focal point of the light and the law that goes forth from Zion? Why not say: and the Lord spoke unto us, saying: Command the people of Israel to rebuild the Temple and restore worship there, as He once said to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai? It is time for the Jewish people, the entire Congregation of Israel, to begin that conversation.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of March 17, 2018
And God called unto Moses. So starts the Book of Leviticus. And He called unto Moses and the Lord spoke to him from the tent of meeting saying, speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them. What follows are the ordinances for the different offerings the children of Israel shall bring, offerings of atonement, offerings of gratitude, but this is only the beginning. For the year that follows this opening gambit Moses will be instructing the children of Israel and their priests not only in the laws of sacrifice and their attendant rituals, but also in the laws of purity, prescriptions for medical conditions, laws of sexual congress, moral laws for social cohesion, ordinances for observation of the festivals and injunctions to uphold the covenant on pain of dire consequences. Moses will be talking, but in fact he will be writing, writing it all down so the children of Israel will be able to read and remember these ordinances which are to be statutes throughout the generations, wherever they may dwell. How appropriate then that the Book of Leviticus starts thus, with a rarely used word to describe God’s address to Moses. And He called unto Moses, instead of the usual ‘and He said unto Moses’. In Hebrew the word to denote ‘and he called’ – vayikrah – also can mean ‘and he read’. The word announces the deep meaning of this book. Not for nothing is it book number three of five, the book that lies at the heart of this Book of Books, announcing not only the legal code at the heart of the historical innovation that ancient Israel represented, but also enshrining its permanence by turning it into a written book that can henceforth be read.
Many a reader expresses his or her dismay at the Book of Leviticus. I am not into sacrifices, he or she says, thinking the book is the most boring of the lot. But the book is far from boring when you get down to the details. Not only are there dramatic moments – the strange death of Aaron’s two sons being the most vivid one – but the minutiae of the various laws have both legal and literary import. Because the laws are so extensive, covering not only our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other, the codes are full of details, and the details call forth more jurisprudence, just as the stories of the Hebrew Bible call forth more stories. But unlike societies that function only on oral communication, where law becomes hearsay and stories become mixed up and transformed in the fog of memory, ancient Israel enshrined both the law and the stories that carried them in a written document. Writing them down, specifying the wrinkles that have to be considered in sacrifices, medical practices or manslaughter cases, both gives them permanence and makes future innovation possible. It also gives them the aura of justice, because unlike what transpires in societies where oral communication remains paramount, the writing down of legal codes, ritual ordinances, and even national stories, makes future debate and disagreement open to resolution that is not arbitrary. For there is always the text that has to be referred to, interpreted and re-interpreted, an indisputable reference point which all parties ultimately must invoke. Indeed, law stabilizes transgression, lays out the conditions and penalties for normative violations, and allows the society to proceed apace after restitution and atonement is made. It does so by giving everyone confidence that it is not personal status that runs the show, but the written legal text to which all are subservient.
After the fall of the Second Temple prayer replaced sacrifice as the synagogue became the focal point of Jewish religious life. But the function of sacrifice did not disappear, the very function laid out in this first parasha of Leviticus. One brings sacrifice to give thanks, to atone, to expiate sin or error, just as one goes to synagogue and prays to express one’s thanks or regrets for one’s blessings and failures. In certain cases, prayer, like sacrifice, is not enough. Restitution must be made as well, reminding us that for our prayers to reach heaven thought must be joined to action. As the end of this parasha points out, there is trespass against the Lord and there is dealing falsely with one’s neighbor. Both require atonement of some kind: a guilt offering to the priest and a twenty per cent fine to the victim. Some offenses, as we shall see at the end of this book, are so grievous they leave little room for atonement; lead instead to national disaster, for they go the heart of the covenant which the Book of Leviticus subsumes in all its multifarious details. Burnt offerings and peace offerings go hand in hand with leprosy and pledges, testimony and filial piety, all turned into the covenant which has sustained the Jewish people throughout their generations. How were we to maintain this covenant without this written document which any literate person could read, consult, meditate upon and take to heart? And which could also be copied, so that the words would not get lost and garbled in the haze of time?
And since this covenant has become our history, its stories too have worked themselves into our literary and national DNA. We are all called upon and we all read this text, read of the sweet savour we can offer the Lord and think of all we do so that this sweet savour never reaches His nostrils. Such is Leviticus. Such are the Five Books of Moses. And such is Jewish history.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of March 10, 2018
A double parasha, doubling over the instructions for the building of the Sanctuary with the narration of its construction and dedication, at the end of which we read: So Moses finished the work. But of course the work was not finished. There were miles to go before Moses slept, and the miles turned into years, forty years to be precise, in which the Sanctuary was dismantled, carried onward and set up again as the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years, atoning for their refusal to go to war with the inhabitants of the Promised Land and their desire to return to Egypt instead, not to mention their readiness to ditch Moses as their leader.
But the Sanctuary survived all these vicissitudes, just as the instructions for its construction survived the vicissitudes of Jewish history because all was written down and laid out over and over, once, twice, thrice in this Book of Books which guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people. But the survival of the Jewish people was ensured at a tremendous price, and still is, as Jewish souls perish for the perfidy of the Jewish people, forgetting and ignoring the word of the Lord Who dwelled among them, and continues to dwell among them, in the Sanctuary He ordered and ordained. And though the Sanctuary today does not shine atop the Temple Mount because the Government of Israel very unwisely gave the Jordanian Waqf control of that holy site and continues to tolerate Muslim mayhem, mischief and murder and forbid Jewish worship at that Place, the plans for its eventual reconstruction in all their details still lie written in plain Hebrew in every ark of every synagogue in the world. And one day, when the Jewish people finally recognize their injunction to throw out the idol-worshippers from the land and ensconce God’s name in His dwelling place, the Sanctuary shall once again shine resplendent on the mountain top of the Lord. And the Torah shall indeed come forth again out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Even in the desert three thousand years ago it was so. For we read at the end of this double parasha that once Moses finished the work the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord which suffused the cloud filled the tabernacle. As long as the cloud settled over the tabernacle the Jews stayed in their camp, but when the cloud lifted the Jews packed up and continued their journey. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. Thus does the Book of Exodus end, repeating at the end the image of the Exodus at the shores of the Sea of Reeds: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night by which the presence of the Lord accompanied the children of Israel. And like everything told twice in the Bible, the twice-told telling reminds us, as Joseph told Pharaoh apropos his dreams, that indeed what is so told is true and shall come to pass.
How splendid therefore is the image, the cloud by day, the fire by night, in which the Lord accompanies His people on their journey toward the realization of the covenant He swore with them. It accompanied them in the depths of their despair – in the pogroms of the Crusades, the cruelty of the Inquisition, the dark nights of Russia and the horror of the Shoah – and it accompanied them in the apogees of their splendor – in the Babylonian Talmud, Judeo-Spanish poetry, the Vilna renaissance, in the Haskala and Zionism and the rebirth of Israel, and so it accompanies us always, throughout all our journeys, should we stay steadfast. Should we have the eyes to see as we read: chazak chazak venitchazek.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of March 3, 2018
Parashat Ki Tisa
This is the parasha of high stakes negotiation between the leader of the Israelites whom they betrayed and the Master of the Universe who had called this leader out of retirement in the wilderness. The Lord had bust a gut, Moses had bust a gut, the people had wailed and moaned and regretted their sin of the molten golden calf after three thousand of their would-be compatriots lay dead when Moses turned to God and begged forgiveness for this people. And what were the words so laced with irony that he used if not these when addressing the Lord Himself: if You will not forgive them their sin, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou has written?
The reader can do naught but smile at the genius of the phrase. The writer of this splendid text puts in the mouth of its chief protagonist this challenge to God, the very same Master of the Universe who has just dictated to him the Ten Commandments, a slew of ordinances that follow therefrom, and a list of instructions for the design of the Sanctuary a mile long. To the God Whom fervent religious Jews claim wrote this Book of Books Moses asks to be removed from the text if this same God will not forgive His people. First the writer has slipped into the text the idea that God Himself is its author. Then the writer has the audacity to have the man without whom the story cannot go on ask to be removed from it, if the God Whom the writer has previously described as its author refuses his request. And to cap it all off, the writer has God respond to Moses’s request by telling him He will blot out whom He will, notably those who have sinned against Him. As for you, He goes on to tell Moses, go back to your job and lead your people to the place of which I have spoken to you.
The subtlety of the writing astounds, reinforcing the contemporary idea that indeed the text writes itself. Jews may cry Author! Author! and argue into the night of the millennia about who wrote the Torah – God, Moses, some poet of the royal court once King David set it on a firm foundation – it matters little, for the writer has managed to work into the text the literary magic which makes the argument believable. This interchange shows how even the characters in this text, from the Master of the Universe on down, are prisoners of the text itself once it starts to unfold. God is God, sees from the top of Mount Sinai what Moses does not, namely the sin of the golden calf – being God, has even foreseen it long before – but that changes nothing. He is still vexed, put out and angry, so angry He wants to wipe out the Israelites and start again. And it will take Moses, his lieutenant and confidant, to talk Him out of it, not once, not twice, not even three times before He will truly relent. Which means Moses himself is as much the author of this story as the Lord, offering God an ultimatum he knows God has to reject. Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book; but not them all, God admits. Thus does the writer insert into the text the argument of authorship which has continued to this very day. Thus too does he or she show us that the story creates the characters every bit as much as the characters create the story. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, but by the end of the parasha of Genesis He was ready to destroy it. Omniscience takes you only so far. The text takes you farther, out into history, out into the unknown. The text unfolds and its characters with it, as we unfold as does our life, writing our story. That is why this text, this Torah, this Hebrew Bible is such a literary masterpiece, holding us spellbound unto the generations. And why we, like God Himself, cannot blot out any of its parts without blotting out our history, without blotting out whom we are.
And what does this text tell us if not that this slipsiding and backtracking and negotiating will go on and on? For when God orders Moses to go back and get the caravan rolling, He also tells him that He will not be going with him, but will be sending an angel instead. For God is still so angry with His people that He fears He will consume them if He accompanies them further. But Moses will have none of that. If You will not go with us, He tells God, carry us not up to the Promised Land. And when God relents and accedes to Moses’s demand, Moses ups the ante even further and demands that God show him His face, though he agrees to the compromise God offers: He will show Moses only His backside, for if Moses sees His face he will die. And how could Moses refuse, for if he dies, the story of the Exodus and the story of Sinai die with him? More irony. Irony piled upon irony.
But lest the reader should think that Moses has the upper hand, that Moses is driving this story, God Himself exacts His price. For when He passed by Moses in the cleft of the rock atop Mount Sinai proclaiming both His mercy and His judgment, He cashed in the IOU Moses had given Him. Behold, He tells Moses, I am making a covenant with you. I shall be doing something tremendous, something not yet seen by the peoples and the nations of the world. I shall take you to the Promised Land and chase out the inhabitants therefrom; and for that I command you to destroy all remnants of their idol-worshipping and forbid you to consort with them lest they lead you astray and undo My work. That is the price of having My Presence accompany you on the rest of your journey.
Moses was to remind his people of that price over and over again. For the next three books he would remind them, and once he was gone the book that came after this book would remind the people again, remind and record their subsequent transgressions, as the Book of the Jews continues to remind and record down to our day. From the Book of Judges through the Book of the Maccabees to the Book of Zionism the story is still writing itself, writing us. And what do we, its characters and writers, have to say about that?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of February 24, 2018
You shall tell Aaron and his sons to light the lamp every evening so it may burn from evening to morning before the Lord, God instructs Moses, adding: it shall be a statute for ever throughout their generations. This idea of a statute for ever recurs throughout the rest of the Torah. Even in this parasha the idea keeps coming up. The two onyx stones on the priest’s ephod with the names of the tribes of Israel engraved upon them shall be stones of memorial for the children of Israel. Likewise the four rows of precious stones on the breastplate of judgment, so that Aaron bears the names of the children of Israel upon his heart when he goes in to the holy place wherein dwells the Lord; for a memorial before the Lord continually, the Torah writes. The mitre too shall always be upon his forehead when he approaches, that the iniquity of Israel for which he bears atonement may be pardoned. The daily sacrifices are also mentioned in this vein: It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations, offered at the door of the tent of meeting where God shall meet and speak with the children of Israel that they may know that He dwells among them and know that He is their God who brought them out of Egypt to that purpose. Know and never forget, we should add, for why else keep repeating that all these elaborate rituals, adornments and instructions are designed to establish God’s eternal presence among His people?
But the people do forget. Over and over they forget, as they do before the forty days and forty nights are over, and as they will every time they forget their Exodus from Egypt and long to return. Every time they backslide into idol worship once ensconced in the land of Israel, starting with the Book of Judges and ending with the Book of Jeremiah. Even today they forget, as the Muslims are allowed to run rampant atop the Temple Mount and rain down on the place where God dwells among His people the murder and mayhem that have always been their custom. It shall be a statute everlasting, unto the generations, the Torah said, but the Israeli government does not extend even freedom of worship to Jews atop their holiest site. In the beating heart of modern day Israel Jewish sovereignty is not exercised, Jews are not allowed to move their mouths in prayer and the dwelling place of the Lord, there where the high priest is to wear the robes which carry the engraved names of the twelve tribes of Israel, is desolate to all intents and purposes.
One understands, then, why the Torah says this is a statute for ever unto all generations. For if the symbols of sovereignty, if the very names of the ancient Israel confederacy are not present on the flagstones where once the Temple stood, what is Jewish sovereignty worth? All that remains is the iniquity of the Jewish people, the greatest of all on a par with the sin of the Golden Calf, the one that denies its own history, the legacy enshrined in the Torah to create a holy and law-based society on that tiny plot of earth, the Promised Land. As long as Jewish sovereignty is not exercised on the Temple Mount the iniquity will not be atoned for, nor will it be pardoned. For those who think the detailed instructions of this week’s parasha are of no interest or import, think again. God is ever in the details, and none of these details are heeded today. No robe with pomegranate bells sweeps the stones of the Temple Mount. No robes carrying stones engraved with the history of the Jews are worn there either. One might as well say God does not dwell among His people because His people have made no place for Him. And if they have made no place for Him, He Who brought them out of Egypt, then what place have they made for their claim to ownership of the land? What tangible proof have they laid out to make it clear to themselves and to others that Jerusalem is indeed the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people and that Israel is our homeland?
It is not a question of whether you are a religious or secular Jew, nor a question of whether you go to shul or not. It is not a question of whether you believe in sacrifices and think we need to revive the priestly class or not. It is a question of whether you believe in the Jewish claim to Zion, in the right of return of Jews to their homeland, in the very legitimacy of contemporary Israel. If you do, then it is incumbent upon you to recognize that the Torah is the founding document of that claim and right and legitimacy. That is the significance of the phrase: it is a statute for ever throughout their generations. Fortunately we have that phrase because we have that document. Think how miraculous it is, this Torah written three thousand years ago that founded a nation and kept it alive in an unbroken chain stretching back to Antiquity. It is indeed a tree of life for those who cling fast to it. For millennia Jews have clung fast to it and doing so, kept alive the longing for Zion that counters the longing for Egypt which rears its head in every generation. And so the Torah is there for us today again, reminding us of that statute which is a statute for ever, unto all generations. It is time for Jews to take that reminder seriously. It shall be a memorial unto you, continually, the Torah says. How much more of a reminder do we need?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of February 17, 2018
Moses is atop Sinai, a mountain of bare rock and stony pebbles, there to get two tablets on which will be hewn the Ten Commandments. But for forty days and forty nights he stays there and receives instructions in interior design. It starts with the ark, the cherubim atop it, the altar of incense, the table for showbread and the candlestick, and all of them shall be, in one way or another, in gold. Some of them, like the cherubim and the candlestick, will be all gold, pure gold and of beaten work. The reader reads in amazement, the contrast between the plain and humble mount on which Moses sits and stands at this hardware store of the Lord and the shining resplendent blueprints which this same Lord hands down to him, blueprints for the décor of the sanctuary where the people of Israel shall worship Him. Indeed, so elaborate are the instructions when compared to the few and simple words to be engraved on the tablets of stone the reader has the impression that Moses is swimming in gold atop Sinai. Which makes the reader think that the people down below will soon be swimming in gold as well, but to a totally different purpose; reminding us again that all that glitters is not gold. Or, one might say, there is gold and there is gold. Fool’s gold and pure gold.
Of all the gold vessels the candlestick is described in greatest detail. Not only the seven branches, but each of the branches as well, three to each side as well as the one rising straight up the middle. Then there are three cups to each branch made like almond blossoms, with a knop and a flower, and in the main shaft of the candlestick four, with the knops and flowers thereof, located at the point where each of the branches splits off to the right and the left. The whole of it, God tells Moses, shall be one beaten work of pure gold. The seven lamps, the tongs and snuffdishes, shall also be of pure gold, leaving us with an image of the candlestick which today adorns the coat of arms of Israel. It is gold triumphant, gold intense, gold so pure and seamless that the light which shines from it radiates a feeling of intensity and purity that captures a sense of the divine. Thou shalt make the lamps thereof, seven; and they shall light the lamps thereof, to give light over against it, God instructs Moses. And light there is, as light there was when God first set about fashioning this world from the darkness and the void.
The candlestick is at once light and intense, of pure gold and beaten work. Beaten makes it light, but the pure gold gives it weight and density. As a vessel for light itself, the candlestick becomes the metaphor for all that is good in the world: the difference that the Lord first wrought in creating light and darkness, which He then saw, as The Torah tells us at the very beginning of this story, was good; later the difference between Israel and Egypt, one nation brought forth from amidst another to become His holy people, whose tents were goodly, as He will have Balaam say. And if Israel is another good difference the Lord brought into this world, it is because the nation will be the vessel for the law which the Lord called Moses up to the top of Sinai to receive. The light of the candlestick is the light of the law, reflected in the twin candlesticks with which each week Jews greet the Sabbath. And though the candlesticks in Jewish homes may often not be of beaten gold – they may even be of polished silver or humble pewter and perhaps even of cut crystal or glass – the light they shine is witness to this second creation at Sinai. For what do we say in the Sabbath blessing of the wine once the candles have been lit if not: in memory of the deed of Creation, in memory of the Exodus from Egypt?
The light of the candlestick is delicate but powerful; the gold of the candlestick is strong but dense. Together they light up the world, as has the law which the Torah lays out in all its splendor. How fitting then that Moses should be swimming in gold atop Sinai, instructed in the fabrication of the candlestick which stands as emblem and metaphor of the splendor inaugurated on that bare and lonely mountain top. At first reading it may seem incongruous, but so does the idea of teaching the laws of an urban and rural confederacy to a wandering band in the desert whose children only shall be the ones to enter the promised land and settle it. But atop Sinai or in the wadis below, Moses was speaking to posterity and teaching for eternity. Pure gold indeed!
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of February 10, 2018
The children of Israel have heard the Ten Commandments and the series of laws that flesh them out. They shall hear more in the next three and a half books and forty years to follow as Moses continues his teaching, figuring you can never repeat enough to the ears of recalcitrant children. He was right, for recalcitrant the Jews have remained to this day.
Having outlined laws ranging from murder to kashrut, Moses ends his discourse with a peroration reminding the Israelites they are not to make any covenant with the peoples whom God shall drive out from their land, not with them and not with their gods. Indeed, Moses goes further: They shall not dwell in thy land – lest they make thee sin against Me, for thou wilt serve their gods – for they will be a snare unto thee. How prescient the words even today when over a million Arabs, the vast majority Muslims, live in the Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria at the behest of the Israeli government, only to murder Jews and vilify the Jewish state in the name of a foreign god. Twenty-five years after the Oslo covenant Jews have still not learned that they are in a war with people who seek to destroy them. Those are the people with whom they seek a peace settlement that can never come because the aim of these people is to liquidate the Jewish state and subjugate its people. The answer today is as it was at the foot of Sinai. I will send the hornet before thee to drive them out, the Lord told the assembled Israelites, but today the Israelites want nothing of hornets, just as at Sinai it turned out they wanted nothing of the Ten Commandments and the laws that followed, however much they promised to do and to obey.
For though the people told Moses after he had finished his lecture that they will do all that the Lord had spoken, and though they repeated it again after he had built the altar and sacrificed to the Lord as he had told Pharaoh they would do after leaving Egypt, adding this time they would not only do, but also listen, we know that soon after Moses climbed the mountain to receive the Tablets of the Law the people would revolt, abandon him and God, and fashion for themselves a golden calf. So much for doing and listening, as is the case with children everywhere who simply want to get their parents out of their hair and off their backs. True, the Torah makes it seem as if the Israelites had bought into the pact, describing in vivid fashion how Moses had sealed the deal. After reading the covenant aloud to his assembled charges, he took the blood from the sacrifice that he had set aside in a basin and sprinkled it upon them, saying: Behold the covenant you have made with the Lord. The Torah then continues in a similar vein, describing in technicolor majesty the leaders of the Israelite community’s encounter with God.
For the Torah tells us that after this three-fold solemnizing of the covenant between God and His people, Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Aaron’s two sons, along with seventy of the elders of Israel, ascended the mountain where they beheld the God of Israel Whose feet were like paved sapphire and clear as heaven itself. And though the elders feasted they did not die, having glimpsed but the soles of the Lord. It was enough, it seems, for after that the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mountain, bidding him to come alone. Moses, faithful as ever, did God’s bidding, charging the elders, especially Aaron and Hur, to take care of the people in his absence. And Moses went further up the mountain and walked into the cloud that the Israelites had already known as God’s glory. The reader knows too, for the cloud had accompanied them in their flight from Egypt, had stood between them and the pursuing Egyptians, and had appeared to them again when they had complained about the lack of meat and bread. Behold, the glory of the Lord appeared to them in a cloud, we read only two parashot ago. In last week’s Torah reading too we read how the Lord appeared in fire and smoke and glory so impressive that the people trembled and begged Moses to speak to God on their behalf, for they were too frightened to encounter Him themselves. One would have thought the fear of God had been laid upon them, but it will turn out that the fear of God had only scared them away, not drawn them closer. So it will turn out this time again. Six days the glory of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai and six days Moses remained covered by the cloud, until God called Moses on the seventh day and bid him enter the cloud and climb even higher to the very top of Sinai.
Once again the Torah uses familiar words to evoke the drama that was occurring, for the Israelites, for Moses, for God Himself. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights. The repetition and allusion to words and images that have come before and will come again is part of the way the Torah ties the Five Books of Moses together. Moses goes up Sinai and stays forty days and forty nights. The Flood God had sent also lasted forty days and forty nights. It is as if the Torah reminds us we are witnesses to earth-shattering events here, creation and destruction on an equal par. And indeed, if Sinai was the founding moment of the Jewish people, it also turns out to be the founding moment of their betrayal of that moment. The mention of forty days and forty nights hints at this betrayal to come. And in case we will forget it once we come across it three weeks hence, the Torah also throws in the names of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who, we shall learn three Torah readings into Leviticus, will perish for offering strange fire before the Lord. Why mention them by name if not to foreshadow one more betrayal to come and, once we come upon that part of the story, to drive home its monumentality? After all, if Nadav and Avihu had accompanied the elders in their encounter with God at Sinai and could still forfeit His trust, how much more likely would it be that the children of Israel, who had stood far off, would succumb as well and continue to succumb?
Thus does the Torah so majestically paint the ongoing and everlasting drama of the Jewish people and with them, all of humanity of which they are a part. We make deals and we renege. We fight wars for freedom and we forget what we fought for. We say never again and never again happens before our very eyes. Only this Book, this Book of Books, reminds us of the magnitude of the covenant and its betrayal, the glory of the one and the pathos of the other.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of February 3, 2018
This is the parasha of the Ten Commandments, but it is called Yitro because it opens with the visit of Moses’s father-in-law to the camp of the Israelites after they left Rephidim, in the wilderness before Sinai. But Yitro did not come alone. He came with his daughter Zipporah, Moses’s wife, and with their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Gershom we know of, including his name, for we came upon him at the very outset of the Exodus story when Moses fled to Midian. But of Eliezer we did not know, nor did we know that Moses had sent his wife away back to Midian. Indeed, the last we had heard of her she had accompanied Moses on his return to Egypt with the mission of confronting Pharaoh on behalf of the Lord and the children of Israel. They had stopped at an inn when Moses had fallen sick. At which point Zipporah, his wife, took a flint and circumcised his son, flinging the foreskin at her husband’s feet and declaring him a bridegroom of blood.
Now we have even more questions. Did Zipporah circumcise Gershom, the son who was named by Moses so because he had said he had been a stranger in a strange land? Or did she circumcise Eliezer, the new-born one, named because Moses felt more comfortable now that he had rejoined his birth brethren, as the Torah explains: for the God of my father was my help and delivered me form the sword of Pharaoh. The past tense would suggest that Eliezer had been born after Moses had returned to Egypt, but then when did Moses send his wife away? Before he first confronted Pharaoh? After the first plague? The fourth? Later, once he realized Pharaoh would never relent and let his people go? Or is the past tense only a sign that even though Eliezer had been born at the inn, Moses already knew that the Lord was with him and would be with him always, would deliver him from Pharaoh’s wrath and deliver His people as well?
If this were the case, one can understand even more what had transpired at the inn and the strange story that is so succinctly told in the Torah. One imagines Zipporah pregnant going into labor and giving birth to a new-born son. One imagines Moses’s panic at this new responsibility on the eve of a mission about which he is hesitant, even though he agreed to undertake it. One imagines his fear for this new-born life, for he remembers how closely he had escaped death because of his Hebrew origins, and wonders if he is doing the right thing, risking not only his life for his people, but those of his children as well. His wife had no such doubts, seizes the flint, cuts the foreskin and declares to her husband that now he has no way back, but must go forward, a Hebrew to the end. There, she tells him, your choice has been made for you. Your son is Hebrew and so are you, a bridegroom of blood indeed. And so Moses goes on his way to Egypt, and names his son Eliezer with the confidence his wife has instilled in him. But he sends his wife back to her father, along with his children, for confident though he may be, he worriers for their safety. It is enough he risks his life, he thinks, must he risk theirs as well?
His wife had shown terrible fortitude, more than he had displayed, but still he thinks he must protect her. Perhaps too he thinks he must protect his future in the form of his scions. If the Israelites do not succeed in leaving Egypt, at least his sons will be safe and his name perpetuated. For Moses’s childhood trauma was never far from the surface of his mind, ready to be reactivated in moments of crisis. And who could blame him? Is not the instinctive response of any parent to protect the children at any cost? Is it not the normal response of a parent to be torn between his duty to the public and his duty to his family when the two risk colliding? Is not the choice itself one of the cruelest ones a parent could face? How many horrible stories have we not heard about parents separated from their children, cruel choices made no parent should have to make, in the most recent of Jewish traumatic history that goes by the name of the Shoah?
This story of Moses that starts with water and climaxes with water, water announcing the birth of a son and the birth of a people, a basket sailing down a river of reeds and a people crossing a sea of reeds, is a story of birth from the get-go, and Moses is in it up to his neck. After all, it is not only his children whose fate he holds in his hands, it is the entire children of Israel whose destiny his life becomes enmeshed with. For so they are aptly named: not Hebrews, not Israelites, not Jews, but over and over the children of Israel, who act like children over and over, whining, complaining, testing their parents’ patience relentlessly, unaware that the parents too may have worries of their own. And so, not inappropriately, the father-in-law gives the son-in-law some parenting advice about how to deal with all these children.
How happy Moses must have been to be reunited with his wife and children. How thoughtful of his father-in-law to bring them to him now that he heard the Israelites had made it safely out of Egypt. One wonders, of course, what the man said to his wife and the wife to her husband. How good to see you? How you need not have sent me away? How I thought of you all the time, you without whom I would never have managed to do what I have done? And how she answers you did not do it alone, for the God of your father was your help, as you so named our son. Do you not remember? The reader does not know, but the few short lines at the opening of this parasha give us much to think about and, as usual, invite us to fill in the lines of this story so deftly told. And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God; and he said unto Moses: ’I thy father-in-law Jethro am coming unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.’ In two lines the story is told twice, and twice told to tell us to pay attention. For thus is truth revealed.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of January 27, 2018
Beshalach. When he sent them away. When Pharaoh had let the people go, the Torah tells us, God took them by the way of the Philistines, lest they repent and return to Egypt. This has always been the great drama of the Jewish people. One can call it our Mitzrayim complex. We see it five times over in this chapter. Once when the children of Israel spy the pursuing Egyptians and turn on Moses. Again when they cross the Red Sea but find no water in the wilderness. A third time when they complain they shall die of hunger. A fourth time when they heed not God’s word and hunt for manna on the Sabbath. And yet again at Massah and Meribah when they again clamor for water. And always the same lament: why did you take us from Egypt to die in the wilderness, from war, from famine, from thirst? Egypt, the Israelites wailed, was not so bad, the toil for Pharaoh was bearable, at least we had our fleshpots and an ample supply of bread. And beneath it all the longing to return, which was to come up again and again, all the way to the eastern bank of the Jordan. Even in our day the longing for Egypt remains a powerful force, as Jews refuse to go up from the fleshpots of the West and emigrate to Israel, however proud they are that the Jews are once again a sovereign people in their sovereign land.
But are they? For even in the sovereign land, the Jews are reluctant to exercise sovereignty. They do not exercise it where it matters, not on the Temple Mount and not in Judea and Samaria, the one and the other given over to our enemies. And when they are criticized for being so timorous, they say, as our forefathers said when they saw the Egyptian hordes thundering after them at the Red Sea: woe is us, who are we to take on the powerful of this world? Instead they should remember Moses’s words and repeat them aloud to anyone who thinks that peace can be made with gangsters and liars who, like Pharaoh of old, think Jews are fit only to serve them. And Moses said unto the people: Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today; for whereas ye have seen the Egyptians today, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord will fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.
Of course, the Jews like those words, as they like so many of the words in this week’s reading. And why should they not, for the words are sheer poetry. Who can fail to be stirred by the image of the pillar of cloud and fire separating the camps of the Israelites and the Egyptians, giving light to the former and shrouding the latter in darkness? Who does not remember how the Lord parted the sea and led the children of Israel on dry land between the walls of water on either side, only to have them come crashing down on the chasing Egyptians? What about the song Moses and the children of Israel sang after their miraculous escape, whose words have entered the Jewish prayer book, there to be repeated three times daily? I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted; The horse and the rider hath He thrown into the sea. Or: Thou didst blow with Thy wind, the sea covered them; They sank as lead in the mighty waters. Who is like unto Thee, O Lord among the mighty? Who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, Fearful in praises doing wonders? For wonders He did, the song tells us, wonders that brought and will bring dread to all Israel’s enemies: By the greatness of Thine arm they are still as a stone; Till Thy people pass over, O Lord, Till the people pass over that Thou hast gotten. And then the ending, which stirred Handel to his glorious music: The Lord shall reign for ever and ever. And with Him, of course, this people, whom these words carry forth for ever and ever as well. Even the complaint for meat and bread brought its share of poetry, for when Moses told the children of Israel that God would bring them quail in the evening and bread in the morning he described it thus: the hand of God in the evening and the glory of the Lord in the morning, that you shall finally know and believe the Exodus from Egypt is real.
But subsequent history has shown that the Jews have had trouble believing. They believe in prayer and song and disbelieve in the market place and the courts. The poetry of the Book that has formed them is still at odds with the misgivings of politics that has stayed with them from the Exodus. The nation that sings and prays is not the nation that fights, except on those rare occasions when their backs are to the wall, as their backs were to the wall at the end of this parasha when Amalek came and tried to thrash the Israelites still reeling from their miraculous escape. More poetry ensues, as the story is told how the Israelites fought back, aided by Moses who sat on a stone with his hands held up in the air by Aaron and his cousin Hur. For as long as Moses’s hands stood aloft the Israelites were victorious. And aloft they stood, held up until the sun went down. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword, the Torah tells us. But God instructs Moses to write the story down, that it may serve as a memorial. For I will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, God tells him. And the Jews remember this story, because Amalek is the name they have hence given to all their enemies who would destroy them. But their enemies keep coming back, and the Jews remain caught between the magic of their poetry and the exigencies of political will which would have them put an end to their national weakness once and for all. Even the end of this parasha captures this Jewish ambiguity between poetry and war, between song and national sovereignty. And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi, meaning God is my miracle. And he said: ’The hand upon the throne of the Lord: the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’ It is time to decide what the hand upon the throne of the Lord does mean, not only in song, but also in the chancelleries of power.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of January 20, 2018
Locusts. The day of the locusts, so numerous they ate every herb of the land, even all that the hail had left. And they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened. Pharaoh, who had ignored his own councillors’ advice that he let the Israelites go to serve their God – for Egypt is already destroyed, they had said – called Moses back and said: I have sinned. Go, go with your little ones even, only take away this death from me. The death he referred to was the locusts, but the Torah here signals the greater death to come two plagues hence. For Pharaoh once again dug in his heels, as the wannabe Pharaoh of the Palestinian Authority digs in his heels today. Upon which darkness came, real darkness, greater than what the locusts brought, so thick you could feel it, but in the land of Goshen where dwelled the Israelites there was light. Pharaoh again relented, but still he negotiated, his hand weaker than ever. Go serve your Lord, he told Moses, take your little ones, only leave your herds behind. But Moses would have none of that. Not a hoof shall be left behind, he told Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened once again, and the two men parted with the promise that the next time they would meet it would be over death.
The story has been told so often one would think it does not bear repeating. Yet repeat it we do, year after year, and again when we gather around the Passover table to retell the story. What makes a story a story we love to retell and reread if not the majesty of its telling? And how does that work if not through the memorable lines which evoke in condensed form the entire saga, and all the more so when the saga is telling the birth of a nation? So just as there is Shakespeare’s “out, out damn spot” and “conscience doth make cowards of us all”, so this Torah story has its memorable phrases. There shall not a hoof be left behind. Not a dog shall whet his tongue, when the Lord shall go out into Egypt and smite their firstborn, but spare those of the Israelites. And you shall eat the Passover lamb with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand. And when Moses gathers the children of Israel together to tell them of what will happen and how they are to conduct themselves, even then he reminds them of what they are to tell their children when they ask about these events once the Israelites are ensconced in their land: And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What mean you by this service? that you shall say: It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians and delivered our houses. And when the fateful event occurs and the tenth plague descends upon Egypt, the Torah writes: And it came to pass in the middle of the night, just as it summarizes the story, including the injunction to retell the story, with a line that echoes this line: And it came to pass the selfsame day that the Lord did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. But the selfsame day in Hebrew could also be read as in the bone of the day, poetry in motion once again.
What is remarkable in this parasha’s account of the Exodus from Egypt is not only the rising crescendo of the plagues, the drama of the confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses, the terrible night of the Exodus told in all its terrifying detail, but also the fact that time and again the Torah interrupts the story to tell the story and tell how it must be remembered and celebrated for all generations, an everlasting duty of the Jewish people. In order for that to succeed the story must be exquisitely told, and so it is, the lines of this parasha working themselves into the Haggadah, the Passover Book read and recounted at every Jewish Seder table for thousands of years hence. Hence the importance of the lines, the memorable phrases, the poetry, which also left Egypt with the Jewish people and gave them the gift of this book which has formed them into the people they have become, the People of the Book. What a miraculous accomplishment, singular, rare in human history, living proof that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Its only rival in western literature is Shakespeare himself, whose lines and words in his histories did so much to form the English nation, as anyone who reads, listens to and watches Henry V or John of Gaunt and then thinks of Churchill knows. And where did Shakespeare learn that if not from the Hebrew Bible, whose seminal achievement irrigated not only Jewish destiny but that of the West, making it truly the Jewish gift to civilization? But this gift turned out to be a burden, a debt which for some reason Christian Europe and its contemporary heir could and can never repay except with implacable hostility, much like Pharaoh’s, that often turned to murder. And so today another Exodus is taking place as Jews leave the Egypt that Europe has become and return to their homeland, as Jews the world over should do; as we are enjoined to tell our children at the Seder table why we celebrate the Passover as we do: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes. And even for those who do not lay tefilin, the story of this week’s parasha should be a reminder of the Exodus we should and shall one day undertake. Only today it is called Aliya.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of December 13, 2018
Who can resist the plagues? Blood, frogs, gnats, flies, murrain, boils and hail in this week’s reading; locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first-born in next week’s parasha. These are the images of the great revolt and the even greater exodus, vivid stand-ins of sheer literary brilliance, up there with Lady Macbeth’s dagger, Proust’s madeleine, and all the other iconic words that evoke the stories we love to reread. Child-like, we remember the plagues before we remember the story and certainly before we understand it enough to take its full measure. For who has not wondered at certain moments: where is God with His plagues when we need them?
But of course things are not so simple. Or are they? There is a clash here. Israel versus Egypt, the living God versus a death cult, a law-based society emerging like a chrysalis out of the stultifying rule of royalty oppressing the land with its heavy hand. It is, in short, a clash of civilizations, much like the conflict between contemporary Israel and its neighbors, between the Jewish democracy in Zion and the swath of Islamic countries from Morocco to Pakistan and beyond that cling to empire, conquest, and the punishing exaction of blood tie loyalties. And since the Koran, unlike the Torah, has no stories to support its injunctions, Egypt, Muslim Egypt, indeed, the entire Muslim world, would do well to read this week’s Torah reading and learn the lessons of hardening your heart to the point of blindness.
Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and asked that he let their people go to worship their God. They use a little magic to bolster their demand, turning their rod into a serpent. But the Egyptians can work such magic too and Pharaoh showed them the door, even though Aaron’s rod swallowed up the rods of the Egyptians. And Pharaoh harkened not unto Moses and Aaron, the Torah says, as the Lord had foretold. As Moses and Aaron might even have surmised themselves when planning their first salvo. And so begin the plagues. Moses returns the next morning, has Aaron stretch forth over the river the rod that yesterday turned into a serpent, and the waters of Egypt, all water sources in the land, were turned to blood. The fish died and the river became foul, but because Pharaoh’s magicians could do that too, the story has it, Pharaoh remained unimpressed. Seven days did the Lord let the water of the river stay undrinkable, but still Pharaoh would not relent. So Moses went again to Pharaoh and again had Aaron stretch his rod over the rivers of Egypt. This time frogs came forth from the water and spread everywhere, into the Egyptians’ bed-chambers and ovens and kneading troughs, the Torah explains, so the reader can well imagine the scene and shrink from the sight. But God, like literature, is in the details. When Pharaoh finally relented, even though his magicians could do likewise, the frogs died out in the houses and courts and fields. To clean up the mess the people had to gather the frogs in heaps and the land stank. When Pharaoh saw the frogs were gone however, he dug his heels in and went back on his word.
The confrontation escalates. Again Aaron’s rod stretches forth and smites the dust of the land, causing gnats to appear throughout the land, upon man and beast. This time the Egyptian magicians could not match the Hebrews’ feat and told Pharaoh: this is the finger of God. A nice touch that, for we all know that when God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt He did so with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. But Pharaoh does not heed his counselors, his heart remains hardened and will remain so until the one finger becomes five.
Go, the Lord then tells Moses, rise up early and meet Pharaoh as he comes from his morning bathing. Tell him I said to let My people go that they may serve Me; otherwise I shall send swarms of flies everywhere in Egypt except for Goshen where My people dwell. Already in the story of the plagues God is staking out His claim to create a different nation within the nation of Egypt, as surely as He shall take one nation out from amidst another. And I will put a division between My people and thy people, said the Lord, and that is what happened. The flies were horrible enough for Pharaoh to concede. Go sacrifice to your Lord, he told Moses and Aaron, but do so in my land. But Moses countered that the Egyptians would stone them if they did so, for they will sacrifice sheep and sheep are an abomination in the eyes of the Egyptians, as Joseph had once told his brothers. Okay, Pharaoh says, go three days’ journey hence, but do not go far, and entreat the Lord on my behalf that He may remove the swarms of flies from my people. And there remained not one, the Torah tells us, which gives you an idea of how omnipresent they were. Omnipresent and relentlessly unpleasant, as the reader can well imagine, for there were not only flies but swarms of flies, all the way up Pharaoh’s nostrils, one is tempted to say. And yet, once Moses had spoken to the Lord on Pharaoh’s behalf, Pharaoh once again changed his mind and would not let the people go.
Again the Lord sent Moses to Pharaoh and threatened him with murrain that will break out upon the cattle of Egypt, though the herds of the Israelites in Goshen will be spared. Pharaoh went to check that this was indeed the case, yet still he refused to allow the Israelites to leave. Even seeing all the Egyptian cattle die was not enough to cause this ruler to change course. So the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of soot from the furnace and cast it heavenward in the sight of Pharaoh, for it shall turn to dust and the dust shall become a boil that breaks forth with blains upon man and beast. Pharaoh’s magicians were themselves stricken, we read, and could not stand before Moses. But Pharaoh did not care, no more than the leaders of the putative Palestinian nation care, in spite of all the boils that break out upon them, upon man, woman and child, for their hearts are hardened, and they harden them more with every passing day.
And though the Torah says that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it is clear that Pharaoh kept his own counsel. That he refused to keep his word after promising to allow the Israelites to go and serve their Lord – as yet it was not a wholesale exodus that they demanded – only showed how tenaciously he clung to his policy that would brook no compromise. Concessions were abrogated as soon as they were agreed to; relief was begged for only to be ignored once delivered. Such behavior is not the workings of God, but the stubborn twists of a human heart that can do nothing else, caught up in the frenzy of its own idea of how things are and are to be. For anyone familiar with the double-dealing of Palestinian leaders for over a century now, the story is depressingly familiar. Palestine from the river to the sea has always been their goal. No Jews allowed has always been their mantra, certainly no sovereign Jews in their sovereign state. War, terror, child abuse, genocidal indoctrination – such has been the reality of Palestinian actions, whatever their discourse about human rights and the peace process. And every self-inflicted defeat has only been followed by more denial, refusal to compromise, what can only be described as loser take all. Clearly, more plagues are needed, and since the Palestinians will not read the Torah even for their own self-instruction, more plagues will eventually come, until the final and cataclysmic one as it came to Pharaoh.
But for now the writer is content to give Pharaoh only a foretaste. Rise up early in the morning, God says to Moses, and go before Pharaoh and tell him how dumb he really is, for surely by now he should have realized I could have destroyed him entirely. Say on My behalf: apparently you bank on My restraint and play Me the fool. Great however is My forbearance, and so I shall once again show you My power. Tomorrow I shall rain hail down upon you the likes of which has never been seen in Egypt since it became a nation. Those among you who fear the Lord and take Me seriously will bring man and beast inside; those who do not shall perish from their stubbornness. And so it was. Moses stretched forth his rod to heaven. The Lord sent thunder and hail and fire within the hail, which smote man and beast and every herb and tree of the field. Only in the land of Goshen was hail not to be seen. Pharaoh was for once suitably impressed, for the Torah tells us he called for Moses and Aaron and said unto them: I have sinned, the Lord is righteous, I and my people are wicked. Entreat the Lord to cause the hail to cease and I will let you go. Which Moses did, and Pharaoh promptly recanted. But this time Moses was not surprised, for he told Pharaoh before he went and asked the Lord to take away the hail that he knew Pharaoh will change his mind, though he put it thus: ye will not yet fear the Lord God. Moses was finally wising up. When will the Israelis?
Clearly it is not only the Palestinians who can learn from the story of the plagues. Too many of today’s Jews, like modern people everywhere, do not read the Bible, do not understand there is wisdom there galore about matters of the heart and matters of nations that are worth studying. We think it reprehensible to speak the language of the Old Testament, just as we consider it progress to discard the language of Shakespeare. But think for a moment of what we shall lose and think as well of what we could gain. How salutary it would be if the Jewish leaders of Israel spoke to the Palestinians in the language of Vaera, warned them and the world of the dangers of hardening their hearts, pointed out to them the disasters that have already arrived and hinted at the ones that are yet to follow should they persist in their obduracy as Pharaoh persisted in his. In speaking thus one is not speaking the language of apologetics; one is merely speaking the truth, the age-old truth, the truth that has guided people and their society for centuries when they have had the good sense to embrace it. That is what is meant by speaking truth to power, even if power is the tin-pot variety of the Palestinian Authority.
God warned Pharaoh with the plague of hail that his destruction was coming down the tube. He knew that because way back in Genesis He had already sent a flood to the men of hamas so devastating He resolved not to do so again. The people of the Book who read this Book also know hail is a harbinger of worse things to come. Which means they could take a page out of Moses’s book and make it clear to those who do not yet fear the Lord God that more plagues are coming their way, and they are always worse.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of January 6, 2018
The Torah is the start of the saga of the Jewish people, and the Book of Exodus is its starting line. The Jewish family is moving into the Jewish nation, and does so as the story of Joseph in Egypt, supposedly forgotten by Pharaoh, is remembered in the opening lines of this second of the Five Books of Moses. But that is not the only link between the Book of Genesis and that of Exodus. By chapter two we are reminded not only of Joseph, but also of Jacob. For the story of Moses bears some eerie parallels with that of the last of Israel’s patriarchs, reactivating the promise God made to Abraham in the travails of the grandson’s heir, now generations removed.
Joseph had died, the Torah tells us, but Jacob lived on in Moses, son of a son of the house of Levi. For what happens? Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, a future prince of Egypt. But something in his childhood memory tugs at him as he grows into adulthood. Going about his days, he spies an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, and looking this way and that to make sure no one is about, Moses strikes the Egyptian dead. The word gets out and Pharaoh puts a price on his head. Moses flees to the land of Midian, home to the traders who first brought Joseph down to Egypt. What could have possessed Moses to take up the Hebrew man’s cause? The Torah gives us a hint, describing the Hebrew whom the Egyptian officer was striking as one of Moses’s brethren. Did Moses know that, or simply feel that, drawn to the Hebrews whose story he was told suckling at his mother’s breast? Moses’s attachment to the Hebrews was subliminal, learned along with the maternal milk he drank as a baby, even if this milk and the story he imbibed came from a mother who orphaned him only to become his wet nurse and then send him away a second time.
Think back now to the story of Jacob and Esau, twins in Rebekah’s womb and struggling even there, only to have the struggle replayed once they entered the world and entered manhood. The struggle between the two brothers was, in Moses’s case, reproduced within Moses himself, who entered the world and entered manhood a twin of sorts, struggling between divided loyalties, Hebrew and Egyptian. But when he takes the fatal step of choosing sides, striking the Egyptian who was beating the Hebrew slave, he finds himself in conflict with the Hebrew brothers he wished to join. For when on the morrow he found two Hebrews fighting each other and sought to separate them, taking the side of the injured man, the other Hebrew turned on him, throwing his deed of yesterday in his face. ‘Who made thee a ruler and judge over us? Thinkest thou to kill me as thou didst kill the Egyptian?’ the Hebrew asked Moses. And when he heard this Moses fled Egypt, as Jacob fled his home when he heard Esau threatened to kill him for stealing their father’s blessing.
The parallels between Jacob and Moses do not stop there. Moses arrives in Midian and sat down by a well. At which point the seven daughters of the priest of Midian arrive with their flocks. They draw water from the well and start to give drink to their flocks, but other shepherds come and drive them away. Moses intervenes, stands up to the shepherds and helps the women water their flocks as Jacob had done with Rachel’s flocks when shepherds wanted to make her wait. And though Moses did not fall in love with one of the priest’s daughters as Jacob fell in love with Rachel, yet did the father bid his daughters bring Moses to their house when he heard what had happened, as Laban brought Jacob to his house when his daughter Rachel told him what had happened at her well. And Laban said to Jacob, the Torah tells us: “Surely thou art my bone and my flesh.” And Jacob abode with him the space of a month. So too did Moses dwell with Reuel the father. And Moses was content to dwell with the man, the Torah says, and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. Like Jacob before him, Moses also weds, and in the process comes to align himself fully with the people whom he sees and feels as his own, and whom he would one day lead home. But unlike Jacob’s marriage to Rachel, Moses’s marriage to Zipporah is not submerged in the frenzy of passion that would trip Jacob up his entire life. Calmer, steadier, Moses’s marriage gave him the space to put his life back together. He had a son with Zipporah whom he named Gershom, for he said, the Torah tells us: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.’ No statement could be truer. Moses had been a stranger to himself for many years. In Midian, herding his father-in-law’s flocks as Jacob had herded Laban’s flocks, he came to find out who he really was: a stranger no more, as the song has it. Only then was he prepared to meet God and take on his life’s task. And so, right after we learn of the birth of Moses’s son, the Torah tells us that the king of Egypt died, the children of Israel cried out to God, and God remembered His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
What follows is nothing less than Moses’s miraculous encounter with the burning bush as he tends his father-in-law’s flocks. It is quite the encounter. God speaks to Moses from this bush that burns but is not consumed, tells him that the time has come for Him to redeem His promise to Moses’s forefathers and announces to Moses that he shall lead the children of Israel out of their Egyptian bondage. The conversation goes on at length. Moses, we learn, is not completely reconciled to his Hebrew identity. He balks at the task God has set for him. Who am I to do this, he wonders aloud, and how will the children of Israel believe me? What name shall I say is this God Who has sent me? And even if I tell them You are the promise of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob why should they listen when I say You appeared to me in the desert? And even when the Lord demonstrated to Moses His magic powers Moses balked, saying he was slow of speech and heavy of tongue, and begged to be let off the task. But God insisted, promising to be with him and reminding him he would have Aaron his brother to help him. And Moses gave in, for the mention of his brother reminded him whom his brethren really were, reminded him where he really belonged, as he had slowly come to accept in the years spent in the quiet of his desert home. So Moses returned from this encounter to Jethro his father-in-law, whose name was Jethro though as priest he was known as Reuel, and told him the time had come for him to return to Egypt, though he phrased it thus: unto my brethren that are in Egypt. But unlike Jacob, Moses did not have to resort to stratagems and flight. Let me go, I pray thee, he said to his father-in-law, and his father-in-law told him to go in peace.
So Moses took his wife and his son and set out on his way back to Egypt. But on the way, it seems, Moses’s doubts resurfaced. And the doubts took the form of a conversation with the Lord Who said: When you return to Egypt and go before Pharaoh I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart and he will not let My people go. But do not worry, for Israel is my first-born son, and if you do not let him go, I will slay yours. At the thought that the Lord’s magic tricks will not work so smoothly, that the struggle may prove long and bloody, Moses must have again lost heart. The Egyptian within him asserted itself, his lifelong doubts rose to the surface and he protested to himself and to the Lord that he was not the man for the job. So great were the doubts that wracked his soul that at the inn at which they stopped on their journey he fell grievously ill, though the Torah puts it thus: And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Strong words indeed. Very strong words, that indicate the crisis Moses was undergoing. But his wife came to the rescue, took a flint and circumcised their son, casting his foreskin at Moses’s feet. There, she told her husband, now you have no way out, for your son is also indelibly a Hebrew, and if you have doubts about whom your brethren are, you can have no doubts as to who your son is. You, your son, your brethren are all children of Israel and the first-born of the Lord. Go to Egypt with a stout heart and full resolve, for surely a bridegroom of blood are you now to me. And Moses so went from that day on. But the Torah put it thus: So He let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’
Thus did Moses complete what Jacob his forefather did not. Thus did his wife help him resolve what Jacob’s wife could not. And thus, in the end, did Moses return to Egypt and return to his people to lead them out of the house of bondage and to the promised land which Jacob left twice in his lifetime. Not for nothing does the Passover story start with the words: A wandering Aramean was my father, wandering but also lost, who went down to Egypt few in number, but left a mighty nation. From Jacob to Moses, the Passover story recounts, as does this opening parasha of the Great Exodus and the Book that first tells the tale.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of December 30, 2017
Jacob dies. This is the Torah reading where Jacob dies, as Chayei Sarah was the Torah reading where Sarah died. And as that parasha starts with the words: And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years, this one too starts with the words: And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. But though Jacob outlived his grandmother by thirty years, yet were the years of his life few and rotten, as he told Pharaoh, and before he died he had Joseph swear to bring him back to the land of Canaan to bury him alongside his grandmother, in the Cave of Machpelah that his grandfather had purchased to bury her therein. And so, when Jacob died, Joseph had his father embalmed and took the necessary steps to fulfill his oath.
Joseph, viceroy of Egypt though he was, did not approach Pharaoh directly with a request to bring his father’s corpse back to Canaan. No, he thought, best to have his friends at court bring the request to Pharaoh and thereby put to rest any fears Pharaoh might have that Joseph would go and not return. And so Joseph makes his plea to the house of Pharaoh, to the royal household and courtiers, priests included, whom he had spared from debt peonage, and asks them to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf, casting his request as the fulfilment of the obligation of a son to his dead father. Thus was the deed done and permission granted, but the reader notes that it was not only Jacob’s sons who accompanied Jacob’s body to his final resting place, but Pharaoh’s household as well, along with all the elders of the land of Egypt. Moreover, Joseph and his brothers left their children and flocks and herds behind in Goshen. As surety, one is tempted to deduce. But also as presage of the confrontation that will occur when the second Exodus is undertaken by Moses, when he leads the entire nation of Israelites out of Egypt, an exodus Joseph will promise to his brothers and their children on his deathbed. Thus does the Torah bury in the account of this initial if partial return to Canaan the announcement of the second and complete one to come.
Jacob’s sons did dutifully carry him into the land of Canaan and dutifully buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, bought by Abraham from Ehpron the Hittite at Mamre, which is Hebron, one never tires of repeating and reminding the modern reader, who forgets as easily as a later Pharaoh would forget Joseph. As easily too as the household of the British Colonial and Foreign Offices and the High Commissioner of Mandate Palestine forgot their Bible when they expelled the Jews from Hebron after the Arabs rampaged in 1929 and murdered sixty-seven Jewish inhabitants of that city. But when Joseph and his brothers returned to Egypt, Joseph’s brothers went into a panic. With their father dead, they said to themselves, Joseph has nothing to restrain himself from finally taking his revenge upon us for the evil we did to him. They therefore sent a messenger to Joseph as he had sent a messenger to Pharaoh, but the message they sent was a lie, saying that their father had commanded them before he died to approach Joseph and tell him to forgive them their transgression, to which the brothers added their own request that he forgive them, putting it thus: And now, we pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of thy father. But when Joseph hears this, the Torah tells us, he wept.
This is the fourth time we read that Joseph wept. His reunion with his brothers has produced a stream of tears. First it was because he started to understand what had gone on in their family since he had been sold into slavery. Then it was because he saw his brother Benjamin after so many years. Lastly, it was because Judah’s plea had moved him to forgiveness. Now, however, he wept because he saw that his brothers had never believed him when he told them he had forgiven them, that however much they were wrong to have sold him into slavery it was better to see their deed as the hand of God at work, preparing him to rise to a position where he could save and preserve them and the blessing. No, he now saw, the brothers were as devious and insincere as ever, making up lies to cover their fear. This lie, moreover, was even worse than the fear, for not only did it show they did not think Joseph was sincere when he wept before them when he revealed himself to them; it also showed they thought he had told their father what they had done. But why would Joseph had done that knowing the knowledge would have broken his father’s heart and hastened his death? Joseph, in spite of his father’s expressed desire to die once he had laid eyes on him after so many years, had every interest in keeping his father alive now that he had brought him down to Egypt. And indeed that was exactly what he did for seventeen more years. If Jacob had got wind of what his sons had done to Joseph, it was surely not through him. That the brothers could have thought he was the source only drove home to Joseph that not only did they fear him because of their unresolved guilt; they also somewhere still hated him, thinking him still the brat that had stoked their jealousy in the first place. And of course, his father’s blessing leaving him with just about everything did nothing to diminish their jealousy and let bygones be bygones. And so Joseph wept, seeing that the tumult in their family and the passions it unleashed would never be laid to rest, even if the man who had caused them had been laid to rest himself.
On top of it all, Joseph must have thought to himself, my brothers are as loutish as ever, sending me a messenger instead of coming to me directly, as if they could replicate my diplomatic skills. They probably saw how I handled Pharaoh and thought they could simply imitate the gesture. Brute force coupled with lies is more their style, he most likely told himself, Judah’s fine words notwithstanding. It does not augur well for the future, he no doubt mused, but I will let the future take care of itself. In the meantime there is nothing to do but reassure them once again. And so Joseph did, telling them to fear not, he had no intention of making them his bondsmen or anything like that. Instead, he told them, I will sustain you and your little ones. And so he did, living out his days with them and his children and his children’s children, until the time came for him to take his leave. Then, like his father before them, he made his family swear to take his bones back to the land which God swore to their forefathers when He will surely remember them and bring them out of the land of Egypt.
The Exodus that bears not its name is hereby heralded at the end of the Book of Genesis, preparing the terrain for the four books of the Torah that are to follow. But the parasha that starts with the words: And Jacob lived, ends with the sentence: So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. And the reader cannot refrain from thinking that this Book which started with the difference God created with the pronouncement ‘let there be light’ and the promise that entailed ends with that promise entombed in a coffin, the very image of eternal darkness. The reader may very well weep at the cruel juxtaposition, as Joseph wept when receiving his brothers’ message. But one also weeps with wonder at the sheer brilliance with which this story is told, story without end, like life itself and the universe which spawned it. And so one turns the page, looks forward to next week’s parasha which we shall never tire of reading and to the five books and beyond whose story shall never fail to make us weep.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of December 23, 2017
After Judah’s magnificent apology Joseph unveils himself to his brothers. Hurry, he tells them, go to my father and tell him all that has befallen me, and bid him come down here with his entire family that you may live near me in the land of Goshen and I shall take care of you. For the famine is far from over, he says. And when Pharaoh hears of this wondrous reunion of Joseph and his brothers, he echoes Joseph’s instructions. Tell your brothers, Pharaoh tells Joseph, to lade their beasts and return to Canaan and bring your father and all their households down to Egypt. Tell them not to worry about their stuff for they shall eat of the fat of the land and have the choicest of what Egypt can offer. And so they do. The brothers return, tell Jacob all that has happened. And the father, like the son, murmurs over and over: my son is alive, Joseph my son is alive. And so the father takes his entire household down to Egypt in the wagons Pharaoh has sent to transport them, along with their goods and with Jacob’s resolution to see his favorite son one more time before he dies.
But the reader notes certain odd elements to this story which turn into discrepancies as the story unfolds. For one, though Jacob is overwhelmed at the news that Joseph is alive, he yet adds the kicker: I will go and see him before I die. And when he finally makes it to Goshen and Joseph falls upon his neck, all the father can say to the son is: now I can die. What kind of thing is that to say to the son you have mourned for years only to find out he is alive? Would you not want to live on and on and enjoy his company for as long as you can? But Jacob is a bitter man, and all the more bitter because the only wife he loved died on him so long ago, long before the son he had sired with her had disappeared from his life as well. And how do we know this, you may ask? We know it because when Jacob is finally presented to Pharaoh at court and Pharaoh asks him his age, Jacob answers he has sojourned on this earth for a hundred and thirty years but his days have been few and evil and not as long, nor as rich we are led to conclude, as those of his fathers before him. Even now, we see, Joseph was a talisman for his mother Rachel, for whom next week’s parasha will make clear Jacob pined all his life, leading him to neglect his children to his peril and theirs. The trouble Jacob sowed thus in his family would haunt them all to the bitter end, at which this week’s story only hints.
When Jacob and his entourage arrive in Egypt he sends Judah on to Joseph so that he can be shown the way unto Goshen. The choice of Judah is capital here. It was Judah whose courage had arranged this reunion and so it was Judah who acted as emissary between father and son. The Torah says nothing about what happened when Judah met Joseph, not surrounded by his brothers and unaccompanied by his father. But the reader is not only tempted to eavesdrop; he or she is tempted to imagine what might or might not have transpired. All we know is that the family made it to the land of Goshen, whereupon Joseph made ready his chariot and went to meet his father, upon whose neck he fell and wept. The reader, this reader at any rate, thinks it ought to be Judah upon whose neck Joseph should be falling and weeping, for while the father never sent someone to inquire after Joseph all those years, content to be satisfied with his bloodied coat as a death certificate, Judah was the one who actually stood up as a father should when next the occasion presented itself, taking responsibility for the next brother whose life was threatened. In so doing, it was Judah who provoked the reunion of father and son, let alone brother and brother; and in this sense, it was Judah who should have been part of this scene of tears and embraces. One can even imagine Judah as he stood to the side, a pang of hurt going through him, quickly suppressed by the joy at seeing the reunion of father and son which Judah knew, as a father who had himself sinned terribly, made up for being left out. Or perhaps Judah and Joseph had made their peace, the adult peace between adult brothers, when Judah had been sent on alone, and that more than sufficed this brother who knew what repentance required.
Of course, now that Jacob was old and enfeebled, Joseph too stepped up to the plate, becoming the virtual patriarch of this sprawling family by virtue of the position he enjoyed as their benefactor. But Joseph’s entry into the role of patriarch was not the same as Judah’s. Judah had stepped into the moral and emotional void that Jacob had left long ago, content even to let Benjamin go down to Egypt with the self-centred excuse of despair: and if I be bereaved I am bereaved. Joseph’s role was more like his father’s in his heyday, amassing riches and power to take care of a growing family. And so, after greeting his father, Joseph turns to his brothers and prepares them for their meeting with Pharaoh. For although Pharaoh had promised them the fat of the land he had not yet granted them permission to dwell in Goshen. So Joseph tells his brothers that when he presents them to Pharaoh they are to say they are keepers of cattle and shepherds from way back when and are to ask to stay in the land of Goshen. Joseph then prepares the terrain with Pharaoh, whom he knows how to play, having had much experience in dealing with him. Thus when Joseph brings five of his brothers to meet him, all goes smoothly. Pharaoh even asks his brothers if they know any able herdsmen amongst them who could tend his cattle as well, for Joseph has already explained to his brothers that being a shepherd is an abominable occupation to Egyptians. In which case, Pharaoh tells his brothers, make them rulers over my cattle, as Pharaoh, the reader remembers, had made Joseph ruler over Egypt.
Which brings us to the last story in this parasha. Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Goshen, in the best of the land of Egypt, the Torah tells us, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had promised. And Joseph sustained them all as he sustained all of Egypt, but the latter he did so at a price. For when the Egyptians ran out of money to buy the corn that Joseph had stored up in provision against the famine, he told them to bring him their herds which he took in exchange for bread. And when the following year they ran out of cattle to exchange for corn, Joseph bought all their land and turned the Egyptians, except for the priests, into debt peons to Pharaoh in exchange for corn. They could still till their lands and consume the fruits of their labour, but henceforth they had to give a fifth of their yields to Pharaoh. Thus did Joseph prop up the royal treasury of the Pharaohs in perpetuity, the very Joseph whom a later Pharaoh, we shall soon read in the opening parasha of the Book of Exodus, would conveniently forget. But this is not the only foreshadowing of what is to come. For this parasha ends with the very words with which that Book of Exodus will open: And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they got them possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly. Thus does the Torah once again stitch the Hebrew saga together with words and phrases and images that repeat themselves over and over. Thus too is the royal personage of Joseph an integral part of this literary bridge. But though without him the remnant for deliverance would not have turned into a nation, the mantle of sovereignty shall fall not upon him, but upon his brother Judah who, at the outset of this parsaha, came near unto him and spoke up and spoke out.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of December 16, 2017
If any parasha in the Torah demonstrates the literary genius of the Hebrew Bible, this one does. Twice-told tales, brilliant but simple images, harking back and pointing forward, multiple levels of reference and meaning, subtle twists of dialogue that speak volumes – who can fail to be astounded and pleased with wonder?
Pits and coats. We start with the basics. Twice Joseph has found himself in a pit. Three times has he been given a brilliant new coat. The first one ignited his brothers’ jealousy and led to his being cast into a pit. By the time he was removed from it he was coatless and sold into slavery. In Egypt he worked himself up to the position of steward to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, a position that found him garbed in another coat that also proved his undoing. Cast again into a pit, this time Pharaoh’s prison, he was again hauled up to interpret the dreams that troubled Pharaoh, but before he did so he was again dressed in splendid raiment befitting a visit to the royal court. Thus are we the readers reminded of the ups and downs of Joseph’s trajectory. Thus too are we held spellbound, wondering about the story that is about to unfold, wondering if this time he will hold on to his coat and his position.
Then then are the dreams. Two dreams twice told. Once we are told the dreams by the narrator and again we are told the dreams by Pharaoh to Joseph, asking for interpretation. So much of the Hebrew Bible is narrated like this, from Genesis’s two versions of Creation to the two versions of Saul’s death in the Books of Samuel. The repetition requires interpretation, for it is not clear, as it was not clear to Pharaoh, why the dream had to appear two-fold, why the versions are always double. The dream is one, Joseph tells Pharaoh, and that it is twice told indicates God will do what the dream announces. But to understand what it announces requires an interpreter that makes sense of what is related. And so it is with the Hebrew Bible, calling up interpretation galore, asking for rewrites of the first rewrite, making of the Hebrew Bible a living text and a perpetual commentary on itself. The story of Joseph and his brothers, of which Miketz is an integral part, is itself a rewrite on a much more intricate and fleshed out scale of the story of Cain and Abel. Indeed, it can be taken as an answer to Cain’s question – am I my brother’s keeper? – although the answer turns out to be as complicated as the question.
Joseph is made viceroy of Egypt. Pharaoh gives him the signet ring from his hand, clothes him in vestments of fine linen, puts a gold chain around his neck and has him ride in his second chariot, parading him throughout Egypt’s capital to the cries of ‘Abrech’ rising from the populace. In Hebrew the word conjures up resonances of blessing. Who else in the Hebrew Bible is so honored? One has to fast forward to its end, to the Story of Esther, to read how Mordechai was so clothed and so paraded by order of the Persian king to the dismay of his arch enemy Haman. This is not the only foreshadowing of the Purim story in this parasha. When Jacob finally agrees to let Benjamin go down with his brothers to Egypt, he says to his sons in despair: And if I be bereaved I am bereaved. When Queen Esther agrees to go to King Ahasuerus to plead on behalf of her people, she too says something similar: And if I be lost I am lost. The parallel in syntax cannot be missed, no more than the stakes for each of the person uttering the pithy phrase. Thus is the story of Joseph, explained by its main protagonist in next week’s parasha as the hand of God working its purpose to set Joseph up as the instrument of a great deliverance, a forerunner of the Esther story, tying the saga of Israel together from one end of the Bible to another, and tying the Great Book together in the process. Little wonder can it be claimed that God Himself is its author.
Then there is the inner dynamic of the Joseph story itself, summarized in those priceless and ironic words: we are upright men. So the brothers describe themselves, when both Joseph and the reader know better, having met these brothers already in the Dinah story two weeks earlier. There too another prince says of these brothers that they are sincere men, when the denouement shows they are anything but that. This double meaning of the phrase comes to the fore again at the end of this parasha, when the brothers are hauled back to face Joseph after his goblet is found in Benjamin’s sack and Judah admits their guilt, knowing they are not guilty of stealing Joseph’s goblet. God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants, Judah says, and the reader knows that Judah knows the iniquity he is talking about is the far more serious one of having sold Joseph into slavery. Thus too is one parasha linked to another, the story kept moving along, seeking resolution, which for the reader happens far beyond the tale itself, happens in the realm of interpretation and argument the story invokes and elicits. Of what are we guilty in life? How do we atone for it? What does it mean to be God’s instrument? Does that enable us to act in the world and if so, how? And so it goes, questions cascading one after the other from these brilliantly told stories in a book that is anything but written in stone.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of December 9, 2017
So much has happened in such a short space of text. After the terrible story of Dinah we learn that Rachel died on Jacob’s way home, giving birth to his youngest son. His eldest then went and slept with Jacob’s own concubine. No sooner had Jacob made his way home than Isaac his father died and Esau came to help him bury him, then left him to dwell in the land of his forefathers. Trouble, however, continued to haunt this family. Joseph, sent on a mission to find his brothers, wound up being sold by them to some Midianite traders who brought him down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. The brothers, in the meantime, took the multi-colored coat which Jacob had given Joseph, dipped it in goat blood and brought it to their father, who at once jumped to the conclusion that his favorite son had died and sunk into inconsolable grief. Understandably, the reader needs a bit of relief from such high maintenance family drama, and the author provides it in the sidebar of a story of Judah and Tamar. But like all sidebar stories, it has its role to play in the larger saga.
Judah went down from his brethren, the story starts. Considering that he played a crucial role in convincing his brothers to sell Joseph rather than kill him, only to find out later that Reuven had intended to rescue him, Judah must have had enough of his brothers. So he went to seek consolation in a woman’s arms. Consolation and forgetting. He had a friend among his Canaanite neighbors, an Adullamite by the name of Hirah, who hooked him up with a woman who was the daughter of Shua. Judah’s consolation turned out to be more serious than he first thought, for Shua’s daughter bore him three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Family duties took over his life, which enabled Judah to keep his distance from his brothers. But family life in this family was never simple, and trouble soon came knocking at Judah’s door, as it had at his father’s and his father’s father’s door before him, not to mention the turbulent domestic front of the very first patriarch of the Hebrews.
Judah’s eldest son came of age and Judah felt obliged to find him a wife by the name of Tamar. But Er, we are told, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord slew him. One wonders what Er must have done to merit a death sentence, and all the more so given the various heinous acts of his uncles about which we have just finished reading. One can only wonder, though the last time the Torah spoke of such wickedness it led to a flood. And so the reader, like Jacob when told by Joseph of his dreams of grandeur, will bear it in mind for another day. Er having died, Judah then gives his daughter-in-law Tamar his second son, Onan, that he may carry out his late brother’s marital duty and give Er’s wife a son who will bear his name. But Onan did not like the idea of having his seed bear his brother’s name and pulled out before coitus could lead to conception. This too was evil in the sight of the Lord, the Torah tells us, and Onan met a fate similar to that of his brother. This left only Judah’s third son, Shelah, to carry out his levirate duty and give Tamar a child who would carry on Er’s name. But Judah balked at the idea of losing his third son as well. Tamar, he felt, brought with her the kiss of death. Let us wait, he therefore told his daughter-in-law, until he shall be of an age to handle his sexuality properly. Otherwise, he too shall commit some injudicious act and perish like his brothers. So Tamar returned to her father’s house to wait until Shelah came of age.
Time passed. Judah forgot his promise to Tamar. More time passed. Shua’s daughter, Judah’s wife, died and Judah had no one to remind him to fulfill his obligation to Tamar and give her his remaining son as a husband. Judah mourned his wife, mourned her enough to be comforted for his loss, it seems, for the Torah tells us that after Judah was comforted he went up to Timnah with his friend Hirah to shear his sheep. When Tamar was told that Judah had gone to Timnah to shear his sheep, she doffed her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and went to sit by the side of the road on the way to Timnah. When Judah passed by and saw her he decided he needed more comfort, and asked her to grant him sexual favors. She asked him what he would give her in exchange. He told her a kid from the goats in his flocks. And the reader thinks: more goats, which seem to accompany this family’s dealings from one generation to the next, announcing trouble. But you have no goats with you, Tamar remarks. They are up in Timnah, the reader understands Judah to answer, whither I am going; I will soon send you payment. In the meantime, what will you give as a pledge? Tamar asks. What would you have me give? Judah answers. Your signet and cord and staff, Tamar replies. Judah readily consents, gives her the pledge requested, takes her and enters her and Tamar finally conceives, not by the son promised to her but by the father who promised and forgot his promise.
After their sexual congress Tamar leaves, doffs her veil and dons again her widow’s garments. In the meantime, Judah, having reached Timnah, sent the kid from the goats as promised with his friend Hirah. But when Hirah goes to the place where Judah had met Tamar, a place called Eynayim, he could not find her. And when he asks the men of the place where the harlot was who sat by the wayside, he was told there was no harlot there, had never been any. Hirah returns with the pledge and the news that no harlot had ever been there. Judah, feeling bad that he could not fulfill his pledge, tells his friend not to make any further inquiries, lest he be put to even further shame for inquiring about a harlot with whom he slept but no one saw.
The reader, of course, thinks otherwise. Thinks the real shame is that he did not fulfill his original pledge to Tamar, the one wherein he promised to give her his son Shelah when he comes of age. Thinks the even greater shame, and more than shame, is that he did not recognize his daughter-in-law even though he slept with her. Judah may claim she was veiled, just as his father may have claimed when he did not recognize Leah the night Laban sent her to him instead of Rachel. And so Isaac may also have claimed about Jacob when he came to him veiled in his brother’s garments. But the reader remains suspicious about all this veiled defense. Jacob, after all, was so close to Isaac that Isaac smelled him and kissed him and touched him. No way, the reader thinks, could the father have not known it was Jacob who stood before him in search of the blessing. Just as no way could Jacob have not known Leah was not Rachel when he took her and entered her the night of his wedding. How close did he have to be to discern that his bride was not the woman whose every step he had followed for seven years? Likewise, how could Judah not have recognized Tamar for the daughter-in-law she was, unless, of course, he too, like his forefathers, was blinded by the urges which drove him, urges as much emotional as sexual, urges that followed the men in this family like a curse down the generations? And what was the curse if not self-deception that passed itself off as deception, allowing them to fob off their own responsibility on forces outside their control? In fact, however, they simply refused to see what was right in front of their noses. And in Judah’s case, the point is further driven home by the name of the place where he met Tamar – Eynayim – which means eyes in Hebrew. In the place where eyes should see he did not see, evoking the line in the psalm that has entered Jewish prayer liturgy: eyes they have, but cannot see. This is the real source of evil, the Torah teaches: cognitive blindness leads to moral turpitude. Then as now. Always. We should bear that in mind, but like Jacob, we forget.
Judah too forgot. But Tamar was there to remind him. When Tamar showed up pregnant three months later, the men of the tribe hauled her before Judah and accused her of playing the harlot, seeing as she was with child although Shelah had not yet been given her in marriage. Judah answered that she should be brought forth and burned. But when Tamar was brought forth she brought the signet and cord and staff that Judah had given her as a pledge and said: By the man whose these are am I with child. And for the first time in the Book of Genesis did someone say: I am sorry. Judah recognized his error, acknowledged not only that the insignia were his, but also that he had forgotten his promise to give Shelah as husband to his daughter-in-law. She is more righteous than I, he humbly said. Judah finally saw, which is what apology is all about. To apologize is to see what one has done and admit that it was wrong; and it was wrong because one did not see properly. To see is to know, and to see oneself is to know oneself. It is true for individuals and it is true for nations. The inability to see cascaded down the generations in this family, causing the sins of the fathers to be visited on the sons unto the fourth generation. It continues to cascade down the generations of the Hebrew nation even today, where so many Jews delude themselves about the nature of their enemies and the legitimacy of Zionism. Cognitive failure on the part of Jews and non-Jews with respect to contemporary Israel has resulted in the heinous indulgence of Palestinian gangsters and their lies, the most recent case being most of the western world’s condemnation of the American President’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That the nations of the rest of the world refuse to back Israel is understandable, mired as they are in their kindred dreams of imperial expansion and religious idolatry. That the western nations do not is not only not understandable; it is inexcusable. But they too, the United Kingdom at the forefront, have forgotten their pledge to the Jews and to the democracy and decency to which the Jews and their Torah gave impulse. And they have forgotten that because the road map of the Middle East which they read and have read for a century now is cognitively impaired.
Judah not only forgot his pledges; he forgot his pledge. He redeemed himself by acknowledging it, as President Trump this week redeemed the broken promises of his predecessors. Because Judah acknowledged his own cognitive failure, he could now break his family cycle of pleading ignorance in the face of self-induced calamity. As the story of Joseph and his brothers unfolds, it will be Judah who takes on his father and insists they return to Egypt to redeem the one left behind and, it will turn out, to find the one they had lost. It will also be Judah who takes on Joseph in the most magnificent and stirring apology written in western literature. Thus does Judah’s digression – and Judah went down from his brethren – turn out to be central to the story that will now pick up its thread and turn two parashot hence into its opposite - and Judah came near unto him.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of December 2, 2017
This week’s parasha contains the story of Dinah, the original Romeo and Juliet long before Shakespeare penned his five-act play. Only in the Hebrew Bible the story is but thirty-one sentences long. Tersely but brilliantly told, it is exemplary of the way the Torah is written, demanding from the reader scrutiny, interpretation, even rewrite, and holding within its lines the key to the literary, psychological, even sociological DNA of the Jewish people known as bnei Yaakov, the children of Jacob.
Dinah, the only daughter born to Jacob, went walking to see the daughters of the land, we are told at the outset. We presume she is sick of the company of her eleven brothers, the flocks and the herds, and longs for the company of women, their interests, their chatter. And so she goes exploring in the neighborhood, knowing there is a town called Shechem, one with a court and a market, with wares and conversation and who knows what else. But the prince of the town notices her, is enamored of her and finds a way to make himself known to her. How we do not know, but we can well imagine, for by the third sentence in the story the star-crossed lovers have already met and slept together. The Torah puts it this way: And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled her. Much has been made of this word humbled, which traditionalists have interpreted as a euphemism for having taken her by force, or in other words raped. But humbled has also a sweeter connotation, implying sexual congress by consent, in which each of the partners in love’s enterprise delights in being humbled by the other. As Jacob was humbled by Rachel, for example; or as Leah, Dinah’s mother, would have loved to be humbled by her husband, but never was. And how do we know that this second connotation is the more valid one? The text holds the answer. For right away the Torah tells us that Shechem’s soul cleaved unto Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, loved her so much he had his father go see Jacob to ask for her hand in marriage. Had he raped her simply to satisfy a sexual urge and assert his power, he would have gone on his way, perhaps to other conquests, perhaps even to a repeat performance should Dinah have come to town again. But Shechem was smitten, and a smitten man woos, woos with words and not brute force, as Shakespeare had Romeo woo Juliet for pages on end. Here, however, the wooing is left to the reader to imagine. Shechem nonetheless did speak, to his father, announcing his love for this damsel by asking him to speak to Dinah’s father on his behalf. Get me this damsel to wife, he told his father. And because his father loved him and wished to see him happy, he went to speak to Jacob.
But when Hamor comes to speak to Jacob, Jacob, the Torah tells us, held his peace. The Torah also tells us that Jacob already knew the story, as did his sons, and if his sons knew it, the whole family knew it, his wives especially. Which means the parents must have already discussed the matter amongst themselves. And if they did that, it must have been because there was something to discuss, namely Dinah’s reciprocated love for the man, to which both her mother and her aunt must have been privy. For love had already wreaked its havoc in this family, and both wives of Jacob knew its tell-tale signs. What the mother said to the daughter, what the mother said to the sister, what the mother said to her husband we can only imagine. Did Leah plead with her husband to allow her daughter the happiness he had denied her? Or did she too hold her peace, wary of reviving bitter memories now that they were on their own, far from her father’s house? Did Jacob take the news in his stride, or did it remind him of his love for Rachel and how it had been thwarted? Did he wish to make amends with his daughter, or did he think that to allow his daughter to marry for love would rub salt into his first wife’s wounds? The reader can imagine the conversations between husband and wife. The reader can also imagine the silences between them. All we know is that when Shechem’s father made his offer, Jacob held his peace until his sons came in from the field. And the phrase startles.
It startles because suddenly the sons have taken the place of the father. Right away the sons get on their high horse, claiming Shechem had done a vile deed in sleeping with their sister out of wedlock. The reader suspects right away that the sons’ outrage reflected the sibling rivalry run rampant in this family with four mothers, enmeshed in the difficult relationship between the two sisters and their father, whose full fury will be revealed and repeated in the drama that awaits to unfold between Joseph and his brothers. For now, the brothers can unite in their rage against their father by projecting it onto their sister’s suitor. It is the revolt of the primal horde in sublimated form, and it will have tragic consequences. What is nonetheless surprising is how quick Jacob is to take a back seat and let his sons take over the negotiations. He continues to hold his peace, as he shall do at other crucial points in the family’s future, and with equally tragic consequences. Is this, one wonders, the sign of a man who has wrestled with God and prevailed?
The negotiations proceed apace. Hamor, Shechem’s father, lays out the advantages of the marriage. My son, Hamor says, longs for your daughter. If he marries her, you can take wives from our people. Then you shall dwell with us and together we shall prosper. Herds, trade, land; a win-win situation all around. But Shechem thinks his father has not plead his case well enough and jumps, like Jacob’s sons, into the fray. Ask me anything, he tells the young men when they do not respond at once to his father’s offer, and I shall give it to you as dowry, only let me have the damsel for wife. Was ever a man in love like that? Jacob’s sons answer with guile, the Torah says, asking Shechem and all the men of his city to circumcise themselves as the condition for their consent. It is the one stumbling block, they say, for they are forbidden to intermarry with the uncircumcised. It is guile, we learn, because Shechem is delighted with their offer, taking it as a sign of their sincerity. They do not ask for money or land or women, he thinks to himself, only that I acknowledge the one principle on which they cannot compromise. Surely it is a sign that they are ready to join forces. And so Shechem approaches his townsmen with that outrageous request they circumcise themselves so he can marry the love of his life. In describing the advantages of the pact that will be formed between their peoples he assures his townsmen that Jacob’s sons are whole-hearted in their offer. Shleimim is the word the Torah uses to denote their sincerity, as later it will use the word keinim when the brothers shall find themselves before Joseph in Egypt. But the reader will soon learn that the brothers are anything but that. No sooner do Shechem’s townsmen accede to his request and circumcise themselves than Jacob’s sons, led by Shimon and Levi, descend upon the city and kill all the males, including Shechem and his father Hamor, temporarily rendered unfit to defend themselves. They then drag their sister Dinah home and plunder everything they come upon. When chastised for their perfidy by their father, Shimon and Levi respond with sullen scorn: What, should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?
There are those who justify Shimon and Levi’s actions as a valiant defence of Israel’s honor. They will even invoke such action as exemplary when Israel’s enemies seek to take advantage of Jewish powerlessness through rapine and murder. Their bold action stands in stark contrast to Jacob’s rebuke, which seems to justify his temporizing. You have made me appear odious to our neighbors among whom we have to dwell and we are few in number, he tells his sons; now they risk joining forces against us to destroy us. This is the time-honored approach of Jews to their powerlessness, such exegetes claim, and use this story as a parable to justify a different one: Shimon and Levi against Shechem, the Maccabees against the Greeks, Bar Kochba against Rome, and so on down to our day. But the text does not support this reading. Shechem, after all, was in love with Dinah, so in love that he went before all his people and asked them to circumcise themselves for his love. The fact that his townsmen acquiesced to his request indicates how much he was loved and respected. Shechem was an honourable man, we are by all accounts forced to conclude, and his love sincere. The guile was all on the brothers’ side, and Jacob’s response seems more that classic Jewish retort of parents to children when the former are displeased by the latter’s actions: how could you do this to me?
Jacob’s response seems morally weak, the words of a man caught up in a drama of his own, the tangled love affairs of his domestic situation which continued to monopolize his attention. It would monopolize his attention for the rest of his life. Only on his deathbed would he curse Shimon and Levi out as he should have done here. Instead, he allowed his sons to run wild while he remained distracted by the ravages of his own turbulent family history. In that way he truly was powerless, but the powerlessness within only amplified the perceived weakness without, just as the assertion of wanton power by his sons mirrored their powerlessness, the very one that fueled the filial rage for which their moral outrage was the foil. If there is a national moral to this story, it is that Jewish powerlessness and the response to it cannot be dealt with as long as Jews continue to see themselves as members of an extended family, members of a tribe, rather than as members of a nation. A nation responds to attacks on its citizens and on its land with the legitimate use of force that does not require excuses. A family responds to attacks on its honor by circling the wagons, vendetta and deception. The deception is rooted in the response to passions to which we are blind and that tear us apart. Jacob’s own personal history is vivid testimony to this imbroglio. To a large extent, his history has become our history. Indeed, the entire Book of Genesis is the story of Jews, but not only Jews, working out their lives within the confines of family dramas. The Book of Exodus holds out the promise that Jews, and not only Jews, could resolve this dilemma by shifting conflict from the level of family to that of a nation. For Jews to do that they not only had to leave Egypt; they had to exit the Book of Genesis as well. To this day it is not clear they have done so, certainly if Israel’s conduct of Jewish national existence is anything to go by, especially when faced with enemies still mired in tribal culture. But that is another story, and even another book.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of November 25, 2017
And Rachel stole her father’s teraphim – a throwaway line if ever there was – and yet not without purpose. It speaks to the woman, to her character, and to her fury, which was not inconsiderable. When Jacob tells his wives it is time to go home, for he has amassed the sheep which their father agreed was his even though he did his best to cheat him, they both are quick to agree. There is nothing for us here, they tell him, our father has sold us to you and still he tries to rook you. Have no fear, all that God has given you is ours and our children’s. And so, when Laban was away shearing his sheep, Jacob and his household stole away. But, the Torah says, before they left Rachel stole her father’s teraphim.
When Laban discovers Jacob has fled with his daughters and grandchildren he at once rides in pursuit of them. After a week he catches up with them and berates his son-in-law for having left like a thief in the night, kidnapping his daughters and their children to boot. I would have given them a royal send off, he scolds his son-in-law. Instead I have had to chase you; moreover, you stole my gods into the bargain. Jacob protests he has done no such thing and tells his father-in-law he is free to search their tents. Both men have understood Jacob is not returning home and Laban would do well not to force the issue. But gods are another matter. Jacob has more than enough with his; he does not need his father-in-law’s.
Laban searches the tents, first Leah’s, then Rachel’s, but comes up empty-handed. Rachel had taken the teraphim and put them in the saddle of the camel on which she sat. Coyly, demurely, she beseeches her father not to be angry with her for not dismounting to greet him. The way of women is upon me, she tells him, knowing that menstrual blood horrifies him even more than the loss of his idols. When Laban finds not his gods, Jacob really tears into him, venting his anger for twenty years of stolen wages and telling him that were it not for the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, he would have had to leave penniless. Laban, duly chastised, humiliated even in front of his daughters, can only suggest they make peace and the two men set up a pillar of stone as witness to the family truce. Neither shall trespass beyond it into the country of the other. All the father lamely asked was that Jacob take care of his daughters and take care not to take any other woman to wife.
On the morrow the two men part company. Jacob goes on his way and meets the angels of the Lord. At that point he pitches camp and, as we shall read in next week’s parasha, decides to send some of those angels to greet his brother Esau, for he cannot go home without confronting the Fear of Isaac by which he swore and by which he calls his past. But at night, when he goes into his beloved Rachel’s tent – for where else should he go after such a harrowing experience – he discovers she is not in women’s way, and asks her why she deceived her father. Surely the reader is entitled to imagine such a scene. And equally surely he or she is entitled to imagine her answer: why did you deceive yours? Rachel then properly lays into this husband she loves, and as he had lambasted his father-in-law she lambastes him. Yes, the reader imagines her lashing out, my father, as my sister said before we left, sold me to you; but even worse, he sold my sister to you before he did me that honor, and so has ruined my life. You tell me I am your beloved, but what good does that do me? She is your first wife, the one who gave you all those children, the one who is always presented first because so it is done, is it not? And not only does she have pride of place; so do all her children, old and young always hanging about not giving us a moment’s peace, even bringing you mandrakes so that you should sleep again with their mother and sire even more brats. I am your beloved, you tell me, but at night alone in my tent you dare not make the least sound lest your grown sons hear whom you really love and diminish it with their smirks. Why, you don’t even hang around in the morning for breakfast but rush off to the flocks, while I have to endure the looks of my sister, her young children and those two handmaids with their young children. I’ve had it, Rachel tells her man, and now that we are going home I won’t stand for being your second best wife. I stole my father’s teraphim to teach him a lesson and teach you one as well. You say I am your beloved; well, show me for once. Make love to me without restraint and see what our love is capable of; and in the morning do not rush off, but stay and let your sons know you will not tolerate the slightest remark.
Jacob, duly chastised, did as his wife requested. The night was tumultuous indeed, but he finally got to enjoy the love he had dreamed of so long during their courtship, that love of which his father-in-law’s duplicity, not to mention his own, had long deprived him. Indeed, so wondrous was the night that in the morning Jacob could only limp his way to the breakfast table. But the night had given him courage, courage to confront his brother as this angel of a woman had taught him to confront his love. And so we shall read in next week’s parasha that when Jacob limps into his brother’s arms and presents his camp to Esau, he gives Rachel pride of place. And before returning home he has his entire household give up their teraphim which he buries under the terebinth of Shechem. And when Rachel dies on him he is heart-broken forever.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of November 18, 2017
This week’s reading contains the blessing of Isaac, a story known the Bible reading world over, painted, quoted, much discussed, a tale not to be believed and yet, when closely read, all too believable. And it came to pass, the central story of this parasha starts, that when Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he had trouble seeing, he called his elder son to his side and said unto him: My son, and Esau said to him: Here I am. Already dust is thrown into the eyes of the reader, and with it caution in those fateful words announcing this archetypal story of fathers and sons soon to cascade down the halls of literature.
The bare bones of the story hardly need repeating. Isaac is old, his eyesight is failing. He calls Esau, his older son over, asks him to go hunt venison and prepare his favorite dish and bring it to him to eat so that he may bless Esau before he dies. Rebekah overhears this request and calls her younger son Jacob to her side, bids him go fetch her two kids from their flock of goats that she may prepare the dish for his father. Jacob will then bring his father the savory food he likes and in exchange get the blessing destined for Esau. Jacob protests, but his mother is adamant. Do not worry, she tells her favored son, if your father discovers the ruse and curses you, his curse shall be on my head. In the meantime, do as I bid, and to help things along, she dresses her son in Esau’s garments so that Isaac will be fooled by the goat skins into thinking that before him stands Esau, his hairy son, and not Jacob, his smooth skinned one. Jacob does as his mother told him to do, brings his father the dish and winds up getting the blessing.
Readers, understandably, and Jewish readers especially, have not been comfortable with this story. On the face of it, Jacob, third patriarch from whom Jews claim descent, has stolen the blessing that properly belonged to his brother. Rabbis have interpreted this theft as the hand of God at work, diverting the blessing from the elder who comes to personify the wildness in man: a hunter, impulsive, having already sold his birthright for a mess of lentils and married women from the neighboring Hittites. From Esau will descend the Edomites, a stand-in for enemies of Israel who wish to do the latter in. But this reading projects onto the text a teleological reading that the text does not support, and diverts our attention away from the cruel truths that a close reading of the text lays bare.
Jacob undeniably steals the blessing. But he has help in this endeavor. His mother, for one, who hatches the plot. And his father for two, who remains suspicious to the end, yet nonetheless bestows the blessing on this son who he knows is not whom he says he is. Each has his or her reasons for acting as they do. Exploring them through a reading of the text tells us much about the crucible of family, the dynamic of our passions, the ambiguity of the Jews and the marvel of the text itself. Let us therefore begin.
Isaac himself sets the story in motion, calling his son over, sending him off to the hunt. Why did he simply not give him the blessing first and ask for the savory food second? But the father is reluctant to give the blessing, even as he wants to, because giving the blessing is an admission that soon he will die. And so the father puts off the task for as long as he can and makes the son who reminds him of his mortality pay a price for outliving him. Only the price turns out to be far higher than even he suspected.
Isaac’s dilatory behavior allows his wife to intervene. She overhears his conversation with Esau and decides to prevent her husband from doing what she knows to be a mistake. How does she know, the reader may ask? She knows because she has heard the whole sorry tale of Isaac’s own inheritance from her husband at the very start of their relationship. And Isaac was comforted for his mother, we read at the end of last week’s parasha, after he had taken Rebekah to wife. What comfort did this man receive, if not the patient listening to his tale of unbearable woe: the separation from Ishmael, his parents’ ensuing estrangement, his father’s attempt to kill him, the blessing he received for stopping him from doing so, his mother’s death which was the price for all that? True, Ishmael had subsequently whipped him into shape, but only a woman’s touch and a woman’s ear and a woman’s questioning and comforting voice could heal his wounded soul. And as Isaac poured out his story to his newly wed wife, Rebekah listened very carefully and stored what she heard for when she would need it. Sarah was long dead by the time she did, but Rebekah had not forgotten that things in this family were complex. The blessing was not simply a question of handing down wealth but the transmission of a promise, and the selection of the bearer of that promise was not automatic. The first-born did not necessarily inherit the blessing, as her mother-in-law knew and insisted, whatever the price. And so when the time came, she, Rebekah, knew that she too would have to decide and insist, every bit as much as the mother-in-law she only knew from her husband’s story had insisted.
Rebekah had long observed her two sons. She knew of the transaction that had transpired between the two boys around the pottage. She saw whom her eldest son had chosen as wives. And she was not impressed. Of course her husband favored Esau, if only because Esau reminded him of Ishmael, the half-brother to whom he was dearly attached since childhood. But that attachment blinded him when it came to handing on the blessing. He did not see that it required something more to persevere in their neighborhood. Why else had the old man sent his servant back to the old country for a wife for his son? And why else had she consented to come after the servant had told her the sorry tale of Abraham’s family even before she heard it from her husband? The old man knew his wife had been right and needed a woman like his wife as wife for his son, a woman who would not shrink at using her wits and her wiles to further the project which drove them to Canaan in the first place. Rebekah had kept Jacob close all these years for a reason, grooming him for the inheritance to which he was not legally entitled, but for which he was the more psychologically suited of her two sons. Yes, he had something of the trickster in him, she knew, but that was exactly what would be needed, she thought, to deal with the guile that surrounded them. Remember the way Abimelech had tried to gyp her husband out of his wells, she told herself, and that was only the least of things. And so when she overheard her husband instruct her elder son to hunt him venison in exchange for the blessing, she pounced.
Rebekah called her younger son over and hatched the plot by which he was to deceive his father. The son, astute as his mother was, protested. I am smooth skinned while my brother is hairy, he told her; your plot will not work and my father will find out I am deceiving him as soon as he touches me. Rebekah must have been crestfallen to see the son she had chosen was not as audacious as she was, nor as deceitful. But resolute as her mother-in-law had been and schooled in deceit by her own family, she was not to be deterred. Stiffening her son’s resolve, she told him not to worry. Should his father find out and curse him, the curse will be hers to bear. In the meantime, she offered him a stratagem. She took the skins of the kids of the goats she had slaughtered to prepare the food and wrapped them around Jacob’s arms and neck. There, she must have told him, your father will feel you and smell you and think he is feeling and smelling your brother. For his eyes are dim, she may have added, while thinking to herself his eyes are dim in more ways than one.
Jacob allows himself to be persuaded and takes the savory dish to his father. The conversation between the two is startling. Jacob comes to his father and says: My father. And Isaac answers with that strangest of questions: Here I am; who are you, my son? What kind of question is that for a father to ask his son, unless it be a question to indicate the father is already doubtful that Jacob is whom he claims to be? For when Jacob answers he is Esau, your first born, who has done as you have bidden, and asks his father to eat and bless him, Isaac asks how it is that he has returned so quickly. And when Jacob answers God sent him good speed, Isaac, who knows how men can invoke God to do their dirty business, asks Jacob to come closer, that he may feel him to verify that he is indeed Esau. Isaac clearly is suspicious, and remains so even after he feels Jacob, for he says that world famous line: The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. And the reader thinks: Jacob is to Odysseus as this line is to the Iliad’s Beware of the Greeks bearing gifts. But though Isaac wonders, he begins to waver. So you are my son Esau, he tells Jacob, who answers: I am. But Isaac still dithers, as he dithered with his elder son at the very start of the story. Bring me the venison that I may eat it and then bless thee, he tells his son. And when Isaac had eaten and drunk he still wanted proof, and asked Jacob to come near that he may kiss him. Only when Jacob approached and kissed his father, so close his father smelled the smell of his raiment, as the Torah says, did Isaac finally bless him. But the astute reader wants to know how a father who has his son so close that he can kiss him and smell him and touch him not recognize that he is not the son he claims to be. Isaac’s eyesight may have been dimmed, but his blindness was of another sort.
A clue is given in the sequel to the story. Jacob no sooner leaves than Esau arrives with his venison and asks his father to eat it and bless him. This time Isaac again asks a question of his son, but it is a shortened version. Who are you, Isaac addresses Esau, not adding, as he did with Jacob, those two little words: my son. And when Esau tells him who he is, Isaac trembles a great trembling, the Torah says, and the reader thinks at once of Moriah, where Isaac must have indeed trembled, but nowhere near as great a trembling as he now experienced. Esau cries out that great cry: bless me too, Father, surely you have reserved a blessing for me. And Isaac, who admits he gave everything to Jacob, nonetheless finds it in his heart to mutter some words of consolation, words that shall turn out to be prophetic as the story unfolds. But the reader can only think that Isaac must have been momentarily blinded when he held Jacob in his hands and felt him and kissed him and blessed him, blinded by the memory of Ishmael his brother whose banishment had brought him to the top of Moriah, blinded by the knife his father held aloft about to slay him when he had to sweet talk his father out of his crazed grief at the loss of his first-born son. At that moment, the memory of Moriah blended with the smell of the fields on his son’s clothes and with the joy in his heart that he, Isaac, unlike his father, was giving his blessing to his first-born son and so repairing the damage done so long ago. And so Isaac not only felt and kissed his son Jacob but gave him his blessing. But even this interpretation will not blind the reader, who understands that the blessing is still in the end the blessing of the father.
The best laid plans of mice and men do often go astray, another writer wrote, and here it was no different. Deception proved to be self-deception all around and brought untold sorrow to all concerned, even to the third generation. Esau hated Jacob and vowed to kill him. Jacob had to be sent away, back to Rebekah’s brother where he suffered comeuppance in kind. Esau went south to Ishmael and took a wife for himself from Ishmael’s family. Isaac and Rebekah were thus bereft of both sons as Abraham and Sarah had been of theirs. And the Jews, who even to this day remain ambiguous about the blessing they have inherited and reluctant to assume the mantle of national sovereignty it requires – when to do so would require they act as Rebekah acted and declare the land belongs to them and not their enemies who claim to be their brothers – perhaps still wonder if the blessing is not theirs to have, being the blessing of the second son whose descendants they are.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of November 11, 2017
Parashat Chayei Sarah
The parasha is entitled The Life of Sarah, but the first thing we read about her life is that she died. Moreover, she did not die in her husband’s arms, not even in her husband’s tent, but in Kiryat Arba which is Hebron, and her husband who was also her brother came there to bury her. The two no longer lived together, not because Sarah was ill and needed care in a home that did not exist in Beersheba, but because she no longer cared to share her life with the man whom she had accompanied from Haran to Canaan, from Canaan to Egypt and back, and from there to Gerar and Beersheba. God knows they had their share of travails and disagreements in their long journey together to start a new kind of life, sanctioned by a God they sought and worshipped and domiciled in a new and not too populated land. Together they dreamed of a blessing, which they both knew could only come through the blessing of a child. But the child was long in coming, and each sought to protect the other from the agony and doubt entailed by the wait and the longing. Each sacrificed much, each according to the different ways of men and women, with no one to rely on but the family they had to create.
One may be forgiven for thinking they were a very modern couple, solving problems together, partners in an enterprise where love is complex, brings disappointment, regret, attempts to repair and endure. Sarah entered other men’s beds to save her husband. Abraham entered another woman’s bed to give his wife a child. He made crazy deals with God to give his wife what he thought she wanted, but when she finally got it he resented the price he had to pay – the banishment of his first-born son – and so made her pay as well, taking her son to the top of Moriah to kill him. After seventy-five years of marriage she knew what her husband was up to and simply gave up. He and Isaac went to Moriah and she left for Hebron, never to return. Did she hear that Abraham stayed his hand at the last moment? Did Isaac get word to her that he was okay, but now living in the south, with the brother she had had his father send away? Did Sarah die from a broken heart because of her husband’s last deal with God, or did she die because the sacrifice she had demanded on behalf of her son alienated Isaac from her as well?
One is tempted to think the latter, because this parasha which is called The Life of Sarah is all about Isaac. Sarah died in Hebron, we are told in the beginning, Abraham comes to bury her and buys a plot of land in order to do so. But no sooner is this accomplished than he calls his steward over and sends him back to the Old Country to find a wife for his son Isaac. What else does a man do for his wife now that she is no longer among the living? How else repair and make their love endure beyond all the mistakes? The steward’s journey is long and rocambolesque, but he does return with a wife for Abraham’s son. The wife turns out to be more than suitable. Isaac has returned from the south, recovered from his ordeal at Moriah. Fit and handsome, it would seem, for his prospective bride fell off her camel when she saw him. Love at first sight if ever there was, the reader is wont to conclude, and the Torah confirms this assessment a few sentences later when it says: And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother.
The phrase is ambiguous. Does it indicate Isaac had been grieving for his mother and only now, when he took a woman to wife, was he comforted for her death? Or does it indicate Isaac had regretted his separation from his mother while she was still alive, but with the arrival of a woman he could love untrammelled by his family history he could reconcile himself with that history? Now he could forgive his mother for having Ishmael banished from the family home. Now he could at least understand her, appreciate what drove her, come to love her for the singular tough woman she was and for what she gave up on his behalf. And when Abraham saw that his son Isaac was comforted for his mother, he too could withdraw from this turbulent family drama and marry again, this time not for a partner in search of a blessing, but simply for a small modicum of domestic bliss. And so we read that Abraham took another wife and sired six sons with her, but before he died he made sure to send those sons away and give everything he had to Isaac. In this way too the life of Sarah was the life of Isaac her son. Even from the grave she watched over him, the force of her personality exerting its influence on father and son even in death. And so it is that the parasha entitled The Life of Sarah is aptly named. For the life of this woman was indeed the life of her son. As perhaps it is for all parents everywhere.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of November 4, 2017
And God appeared to Abraham as he sat by the terebinths of Mamre, though it was not God Himself but His messengers, angels on the road to Sodom whom Abraham welcomed into his tent and fed. And the messengers of God told him and his wife that Sarah would conceive within the year. But Sarah had her doubts and laughed at the news, for they were both of an age when such news may well have been doubted. And if Sarah has her doubts, so does the reader, even if we read later on that the Lord remembered Sarah as He had promised and she did conceive and bore Abraham a son in his old age. The phrase in his old age is significant, for it underlines what Sarah herself had said when first informed of the news: After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? God Himself apparently is not enough to put the conflict between husband and wife to rest, a conflict that turns on the absence of an offspring of their lovemaking. Years have passed since Abraham had a son from Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, and Ishmael was an ever-present reminder of that. Her husband kept promising, but who could count on a man who could barely get it up anymore? Shall they still have pleasure, the woman scoffed, and a son into the bargain?
The reader wonders too, and wonders even more when the Torah recounts their adventure in Gerar. For after the angels came to lunch with their good tidings, Abraham journeyed south, the Torah tells us, and came into the land of the king of Gerar, and sojourned there. Again Abraham turns to his wife, as he had turned to her before they entered Egypt, and bid her go along with his stratagem of passing her off as his sister. And so, like Pharaoh before him, Abimelech king of Gerar takes Sarah to his bed. As the story unfolds in the Torah we are led to believe that Abimelech did not lay a finger on her, for God appeared in his dream and warned him that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, whom he should return to her husband. In the morning Abimelech did just that, castigating Abraham for lying to him and thereby causing him potentially to commit a grievous offence against man and God. Abraham lamely repeated the excuse he had proffered his wife on the border of Egypt: Because I thought the fear of God is not in this place and you would take my wife and kill me to get her. Abraham also adds a piece to the story we did not know until then. Besides, he tells the king of Gerar, she is my sister as well as being my wife, for she is the daughter of my father, but not of my mother; and from the outset of our journey we had made this pact to tell strangers she is my sister and not my wife.
What astounding news is slipped into this story. Abraham is married to his half-sister, we now learn, making her barrenness not only a curse, but also perhaps a blessing, and introducing an element of doubt into the nature of this couple’s bond. Was their marriage a marriage of convenience, entered into in order to realize their father’s dream? Were Sarah and Abraham more partners in search of a new home for their new God than a man and a woman madly in love with each other? Does that explain the difficulty Sarah had in conceiving and bearing a child from this husband she did not really love? Is that why she readily agreed to enter the bed of not one king, but two? And if that were the case, did Abimelech really not sleep with her? For why would he then load Abraham up with gifts – sheep and oxen, men-servants and maid-servants – not to mention a thousand pieces of silver which, he told Sarah, he was giving to her brother, not her husband, as a veil she should wear when she goes out among men, lest they think her violated? Doubt now piles upon doubt in this saga of Abraham and Sarah. Doubt about the nature of their bond. Doubt about the paternity of the child to be born. Doubt about the nature of the blessing and which of the two was the driving force behind it, the man who talked to God or the woman who protected him by abandoning him, because before he was her husband he was her brother?
Whatever went on, when they journeyed south Sarah did conceive and did bear her brother a son, whom she called Isaac, meaning God will laugh, as Ishmael meant God will hear. But to laugh is also to make sport, and to make sport carries with it a sexual connotation just as to know does in the Torah. Indeed, years and some parashot later we will read how another king of Gerar saw Isaac and his wife Rebekah sporting beneath his window. And when Sarah saw Ishmael and Isaac sporting together, for the half-brothers were inseparable once Isaac grew, she jumped on the occasion to have Abraham banish Hagar and her son from their household. The son of this bondswoman, she told her husband, shall not be heir with my son. Abraham was distraught to hear his wife ask him that, but he had no choice. Their long journey together, driven by the promise of a blessing that could only come about through progeny, was more important than the affection this old man had for his first-born son. How could he refuse her, given the extraordinary lengths he himself went to in order to secure that blessing? And so, much against his will, Abraham sent Hagar and his first-born son into the wilderness of Beersheba. After which Abimelech came a-calling to settle a dispute with Abraham over a well which Abraham’s men had dug and which Abimelech’s men had taken away by force. Abraham discovered that the gifts Abimelech had laden him with had now in part to be returned. Again doubt enters the reader’s mind: was this trumped up charge the price Abraham had to pay for claiming Isaac as his own? For the two men made a covenant at Beersheba, and Abimelech went home in peace. Sarah too was at home in peace, alone with the son who was hers. But Abraham was alone with his grief for the son he had banished, and sat under the tamarisk tree he had planted and nursed his grief, calling on the name of the Lord until he decided the Lord had spoken to him. This is the prolegomenon to the sacrifice of Isaac, as the Torah says: And it came to pass after these things.
And so it happened. After these things, the Torah tells us, God came to Abraham and said: Take thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, Isaac, and get up and go – those words again! – unto the land of Moriah and there take him up to a mountain and place him upon an altar as a burnt offering. The sentence is strange indeed. Why four phrases to describe his son, if not to indicate the inner struggle that Abraham was carrying on with himself? Sitting under his tamarisk tree, watching his wife finally content and Isaac growing into manhood, thinking all the while of the son, the first born-son, he chased away, Abraham allowed his grief to turn to revenge and revenge to murder. But no one does that without a struggle. Take thy son, he had God murmur to himself. Which one? another voice asked in return. Your only son, his voice answered. But I have two, half his mind responded. The one you love, he hears God tell him. Oh, Ishmael, Abraham says. No, fool, the Lord in his head responds: Isaac. And so it was that Abraham talked himself into taking his second-born son to the top of Moriah to kill him. This way he will punish his wife who is also his sister for taking his first son away from him. Thus does grief and hurt and anger craze a man. Thus do parents, driven to despair, want to kill their children. Love can do that to you, the Torah tells us. Remember Cain and Abel. Now remember Abraham and Sarah. And all justified in God’s name, in pursuit of a blessing both man and wife, brother and sister, had inherited from their father.
But the God of the Hebrews does not ask such sacrifice of His devotees. On the contrary, He forbids it. At the last minute, as Abraham is engaged with his strong and handsome son in a struggle between filial love and parental rage, the Lord speaks to him again and orders him to stay his hand. Lay not a finger on his head, God’s angel commands Abraham, and talks him down from his rage by assuring him He knows Abraham is a God-fearing man because he did not withhold his son from Him. More dust in the eye of the reader, whose subtext reads: You talked yourself into believing I asked this of you, but I did not. It was only your grief and your fury that ate you alive. But on this mountain where I have stayed your hand you see the real God, the real blessing which I have promised you and which your father dimly sought in his grief too at your brother’s loss: a new beginning indeed, where men no longer kill each other because they are driven by passions they refuse to acknowledge and master. And so I shall indeed give you the blessing, give it to you through this son who accompanied you on this terrible journey and talked you out of your rage by offering himself to you at his own peril. For although the text does not tells us what went on between father and son as they climbed up the mountain and this son who could have taken his father down at any time instead placed himself on the altar and allowed his father to bind him, we can well imagine how he must have explained to his father that he too missed Ishmael, but killing him will not bring him back, and even Ishmael must by now understand that the father who had driven him away still loves him, for by all accounts he has married and started a family of his own down in Egypt. And so the father who did not withhold his son withheld his hand, and so the son who did not withhold himself helped him do it. And so the blessing shall come to the son and his seed, which shall multiply as the stars and the sand and inherit the gate of his enemies who remain wedded to the cycle of resentment and revenge.
But when Abraham descended Moriah he descended alone. For the son who helped him stay his hand from murder nonetheless parted company from his father and, like his half-brother before him, headed south. This we know from next week’s parasha where we read that when Isaac was informed a wife was coming to meet him, he came from the way of Beer-lehai-roi, the very well Hagar had once frequented; for Isaac, the Torah informs us, dwelt in the land of the south. And when Abraham returns to Beersheba he finds his wife has left him. This too we know from the opening lines of next week’s parasha informing us that Sarah died not in Beersheba but in Hebron, and Abraham came there to mourn her and bury her. And so the saga of Abraham and Sarah ends as it began. And Sarai was barren; she had no child. But we the readers, the progeny of this terrible drama, are its blessing, the fruit of this couple’s struggle and sacrifice, and live on with all its paradoxes; and with and through the text that wrote them.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of October 28, 2017
Parashat Lech Lecha
Abram took Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot and all their worldly goods and entourage and went to the land of Canaan, reaching as far as the terebinth of Mamre where he built an altar to the Lord, before moving eastward toward Beit-El where he pitched his tent and built another altar and called upon the name of the Lord. Imagine the trek. Imagine the hardship. Abram was not a spring chicken and his wife was not much younger. If he took care to get them settled with all their encumbrances, she had no less to do directing traffic, keeping the household together. What a team they must have been, a partnership in search of God and the place wherein they decided He must dwell. And Sarai was still barren. And yet they journeyed on, heading south.
But lo and behold, there was suddenly famine in the land. Abram, who had left Ur with his father in search of a totally different landscape, now found himself forced to head toward Egypt, a country as rich to the south as Ur had been to the east. Also like Ur, the city of the Pharaohs worshipped a pantheon of deities which Abram and his wife had abandoned. The turn toward Egypt now deviated them from their path. How defeated they must have felt, forced to leave the country to which they had set out, to which, so they decided, God had sent them. But what good, they must have reasoned, to stay in the land and die, and watch their dream die with them? And so, like refugees from war and distress, they headed south to Egypt. But as they approached Egypt Abram turned to his wife and asked her to do him a favor. When we get to Egypt, he told her, say that you are my sister, not my wife. For beautiful as she is, Abram knows, the Pharaoh will want her; and if he knows that she is his wife, he will simply have Abram killed and take her. Therefore, he proposes to Sarai, say that you are my sister; that it may be well with me for thy sake, and that my soul may live because of thee.
What a bargain the man is proposing, asking his wife to prostitute herself for him, that he may live and their dream survive. We don’t know what Sarai’s response must have been, but we can well imagine the conversation. Is the dream worth this sacrifice? To leave the land of Canaan to avoid the famine is one thing. To enter another man’s bed to protect their trek is quite another. Does the end justify the means? Do not the means become the end and ruin it? How great is Abram’s trust in the Lord if he fled the famine in the first place? But now that we have left, does he say, would you see me die? How much does one do for love and still preserve it? So they must have talked, night after night, and so the reader wonders every time he or she reads this story. What we do know is that Sarai acceded in the end to her husband’s request. She entered Pharaoh’s bed, only to be thrown out when he discovered she was a married woman. But so skillfully had she seduced him he did not put her or her husband to death. Instead, he banished them from Egypt, lading them with gifts as well. For the Torah tells us in the very next chapter that when Abram went out of Egypt he was a very rich man.
The couple returns to Canaan. Abram’s herds are so numerous he and his nephew are forced to split up. Lot moves to Sodom. Abram moves to Hebron. In one of Sodom’s wars with its neighbors Lot is taken captive and Abram is forced to take his men and rescue him. Time passes and still Sarai is barren. Distraught, Abram spends his nights talking to God after trying to console his wife. He leaves his tent, looks up at the stars, pleads with God to send him a child. One night he even takes a heifer and a she-goat and a ram, all three years old, and a turtle dove and a young pigeon, and barbecues them to the Lord, only to fall asleep when overcome by the smoke. In the morning he awakens and tells his wife that in his dream God appeared to him and promised him progeny to inherit the land, though they too shall have to go into exile and return before the covenant is sealed. Thus does he attempt to console his wife for their perilous adventure in Egypt and for the prize that still eludes them, the son that would have made her sacrifice somehow worthwhile.
But Sarai would have none of it. Her despair is matched only by her fury at their pursuit of a dream and the cost it has entailed. He, after all, did not sleep in Pharaoh’s bed. He even made money on the deal. And yet he cannot give her a son. Perhaps they argue over whose fault it is that Sarai cannot conceive. At her wits’ end, Sarai thrusts her Egyptian handmaid on her husband. Take her to bed, she tells him; perhaps I will be a mother through her. But to herself she most likely thinks we will see whose fault it is that I am childless. Does Abram object? Does he tell his wife they are under no duress similar to that which they endured in Egypt? Does he tell her it is only she whom he loves and only her offspring does he want for the blessing to be enjoyed? Does she remain adamant so that in the end he believes he goes unto Hagar out of loyalty to his wife? We do not know, for again the Torah omits all these crucial details. We only know that Abram did go unto Hagar, one of the riches with which he left Egypt, and that she conceived.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, a man wrote millennia later, and so it was in this case. When Sarai saw that Hagar conceived she must have felt humiliated and diminished. The bigger Hagar got the more diminished she must have felt, until one day she berated her husband for what he had done. My wrong be upon thee, Sarai told Abram, who told her to do as she wished. Sarai made Hagar’s life miserable in return, so miserable that Hagar fled their home, only to be found by a messenger of the Lord, crying by a fountain in the wilderness. The reader suspects the messenger was none other than Abram himself, who consoled his concubine by reminding her that much as she suffered at Sarai’s hand, Sarai suffered even more. For Hagar was going to give birth to a child, while Sarai remained barren. Hagar returned and gave birth to a son whom Abram called Ishmael, meaning God will listen.
Sarai made peace with the situation, but one imagines her peace was tight-lipped and her mouth was lined with bitterness. Again Abram spent his nights talking with God and his mornings reassuring his wife. We have but to change our names, Abram told Sarai, adding the Lord’s name to ours and the blessing will come. Moreover, I will circumcise myself and all the males in my household. This I will do for you, that the covenant I am sure God has promised me will be sealed through the birth of a son that issues from your womb. And so it was that Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah and all the men in Abraham’s household, Ishmael included, were circumcised. But Sarah, though her name was changed, was still barren, and she must have thought her husband was now crazy and both of them fools.
And Sarai was barren; she had no child. Thus did the parasha of Noach end, but thus did the story of Abraham and Sarah start. The absence of a child haunted their relationship. It haunted the entire Abrahamic adventure of get up and go. It got enmeshed in the series of sacrifices each one thought he or she had to make to preserve the relationship and so preserve the journey which turned into a covenant. Which raises too many questions to be answered at once, though one does stand out: is this a love story? Did they betray each other’s intimacy in order to give to each other what each thought the other held most precious? Were they both crazed in pursuit of an idea that far surpassed what, in the light of such glory, must appear as the paltry claims of love, that hill of beans as time goes by? Does one have to be crazed in order to launch humanity on a totally new course? Or does it require superhuman perseverance, the other side of simple faith, in the face of such terrible odds: the lure of Egypt, the famine of Canaan, the seeming silence of God? Were Abraham and Sarah partners in this unique adventure, each hard as nails, supremely steadfast? Or were they madly, fiercely in love, willing to do anything for the other, even that which would tear most lovers apart?
The answers can only be gleaned from the text, which extends beyond this parasha. They reveal themselves as the story unfolds, as the story of the descent into Egypt repeats itself in the descent to Gerar, as the flight of Hagar repeats itself in her banishment, as the bitterness of Sarah becomes the bitterness of her husband. Thus do later events shed light on the events recounted in this week’s reading. Thus does this wondrous text become revelation and revelation itself become never-ending interpretation. To be continued. Reader, read on.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of October 21, 2017
A flood has swamped the earth, the little ark, little in comparison, has floated upon the waters to save the remnant of humanity, a dove released from the ark brings back an olive branch. The waters subside, Noah steps out with his family and starts anew, and the Torah recites to us the generations of the sons of Noah. After which the Torah tells us: these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood. But though the descendants of Noah spread out upon the earth, they came together in the plain of Shinar to build a tower to the heavens. The endeavour so frightened the Lord that He confounded the men who aspired to such heights, causing them to leave off building the city. And so men spread even further across the earth, while the Torah picks up its recitation of the generations of the sons of Noah, now following the branch of the son called Shem. With this we come to the end of the last chapter in this parasha, whose final nine sentences contain the seeds of the saga of the Jewish people. Buried within them is the momentous yet shortest sentence of them all, verse 30: And Sarai was barren; she had no child. Like a Greek chorus announcing the drama to come, this briefest of verses will now launch a flood of its own. Indeed, compared to the high drama of the preceding events, the sentence is much like a little ark itself, containing within its hold unsuspected forces.
The sons of Seth begat sons, until one of the sons named Nahor begat Terah, who in turn sired Abram, Nahor and Haran. But Haran died in the presence of his father Terah, we learn, in the land in which he was born, both father and son, Ur of the Chaldees. Before he died, Haran had time to sire children of his own, a son named Lot and two daughters, Milcah and Iscah. At which point Terah took himself, his son Abram along with Abram’s wife Sarai, and Lot, his great nephew, and left the city of Ur to go into the land of Canaan. A not insignificant detail, for in the next parasha we will read that God spoke to Abram telling him to leave his country and his father’s house and move to Canaan. But in this parasha we learn that Terah and his entourage never made it to Canaan. They stopped in Haran and there they dwelled and there Haran died. We may even conclude that when Terah left Ur he also left behind his other son, Nahor, and Nahor’s wife Milcah, the daughter of Nahor’s brother Haran whom he wed after, one presumes, his brother had died. But perhaps he had wed her in his brother’s lifetime. An intricate family, we see, about whom we would like to know more.
Why did Terah decide to leave Ur, one of the greatest cities of its age, in order to take himself to a country poor in comparison? Why did he stop in Haran rather than continue to his destination? Why did he leave behind in Ur his remaining son, Nahor, taking only Haran’s son, but leaving Haran’s other two daughters? And why does the Torah take time out to tell us that Sarai was barren? Did that mean the daughter-in-law who was left behind was not? Did her fecundity have something to do with a family quarrel that led half the family to leave? Once again the Torah’s laconic style invites the reader to supply answers to the questions the text so obviously asks. And so the Torah asks the reader to become the writer in turn, taking him or her on a journey not unlike the one that the first patriarch of the Jews shall take as well.
To answer those questions we must turn to the text, not to theology. We know Canaan was poor because almost as soon as Abram reached it he had to go south to Egypt in search of food. So why would Terah abandon a city as luxurious as Ur? Was it true, as legend has it, that he got sick of the gods of that city when his son, Abram, smashed the idols and with that his father’s belief in their power? Or was the father already sickened with grief at the loss of his son Haran? It may well have been that the death of his son turned the good life of Ur to ashes in his mouth. Losing a child can do that to you, make you ponder on what is important in life, and pondering that can turn you in a new direction. Let us leave, the father said to his children. And when they, bewildered, asked where shall they go, the father said let us go to Canaan, precisely because it is the opposite of what we have here, poor but not God-forsaken.
Nahor did not want to leave. He had a young wife. She had borne him a son or two and would bear him more, as we learn at the end of Vayera, two parashot hence. He did not see why the loss of his brother should uproot them from their comfortable life and make their sojourn with grief even harder. But his nephew Lot saw things differently. Younger, impressionable, still dealing with the loss of his father, he may have been glad to leave and leave all that grief behind, make a new start, even if making a new start had less to do with finding new meaning than finding adventure. Little did he know how much adventure was in store! And Abram, whose wife was barren? How Sarai must have felt diminished when her sister-in-law, who was also the daughter of her deceased brother-in-law, gave birth with ease while she remained with her womb shut! For those who think such an interpretation is stretching the imagination, they have but to read on in this story to see how the absence of a son tore this couple apart, this couple of Abram and Sarai. It drove Abram to talk to God under the dark canopy of heaven. It drove him to change his name and hers to Abraham and Sarah. It drove him to sacrifices and circumcision and it drove his wife to foist her Egyptian maid on her husband and drive her away when she did become pregnant. For bitter she was when that happened, as we read in next week’s parasha, but the bitterness then had started much earlier, before her father-in-law had decided to uproot his family and leave Ur. As it is said: And Sarai was barren; she had no child.
And Sarai was barren. The phrase tucked away at the end of Noach will loom large for the next fourteen chapters, and who knows if its reach does not extend to the end of the Book of Genesis? Thus does the Torah unfold, as we shall see in that delicious phrase that keeps cropping up: After these things. After these things had come to pass. Which brings us to one more question: why did Terah stop in Haran rather than continue to Canaan, his original goal? Was he struck dumb when he chanced upon a town whose name recalled his dead son? Was he tired and worn out by the time he reached there, sufficiently so to doubt the impulse that had first driven him to leave Ur? Did he say to himself: I thought to leave a sickness unto dread only to come to this tired and dusty town that seems no different from the city I left, except for its misery? Or was it simply old age that sapped his strength, physical and moral, leading him to conclude, long before Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity? Perhaps too, he felt bad for having dragged half his family along with him and decided they would stop here before things got even worse. For if Haran took the heart out of him, imagine what Canaan could do. Thus may the old man have figured. And out of respect for his father, Abram, now the eldest in the family, agreed to halt their journey there, agreed until his father died. Only then would he pick up his father’s vision and urge they continue on. And only thus can we understand why, although Terah was the one who set out to Canaan in the first place, next week’s parasha begins with those momentous words that still sing in the Hebrew heart: lech lecha. Only thus does it make sense that now the Lord said to Abram: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. The journey started off as the father’s; but the journey became the son’s and through the son, ours.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of October 14, 2017
Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and God punished them. Henceforth, God told the woman, you shall bring forth children in pain, and to the man He said, you shall toil the land to eat the herb of the field and sweat to eat your bread. The Lord then banished the two of them from the garden of Eden. After which, the Torah tells us, Adam knew Eve his wife and she bore him a son. She called her son Cain, saying I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord. Or maybe she said: I have bought a son from the Lord. Then she bore another son, Cain’s brother Abel, but no mention of the Lord this time. Thus begins the terrible story of Cain and Abel.
The story, as usual in the Hebrew Bible, is condensed, but explodes upon reading. The bare details are by now legendary. One day Cain decides to bring the fruit of the ground as an offering to the Lord. Seeing this, Abel does likewise, only he, a shepherd and not a farmer, brings a firstling of his flock as a sacrifice to God. Now the Lord paid attention to Abel’s offering, but not to Cain’s. Cain was crestfallen, and his hurt turned to anger. Why are you thus? the Lord asked Cain, to which Cain says nothing. But the Lord divines the hurt in his heart, and tries to offer Cain consolation. You are angry with Abel because it seems I favored his offering. You are probably even angry with Me for much the same reason. You may think it all unfair, since you had the idea of pleasing Me first and you probably thought this would be a good way to atone for your parents’ error and put their recurring lamentation for their days in Eden to rest. After all, it was the fruits of the ground that they would henceforth labor that I cursed before sending them into exile. Your intentions were noble, but your plan was misguided, my dear Cain. It is not your job to atone for your parents’ mistakes. Look to your own life and to your own choices. Do not blame others for them. You can do better. But if you do not, remember that sin always crouches at your doorstep. Hurt is no substitute for self-reflection, which will help you rule your hurt and the murderous impulses it sets in motion.
Of course, God did not say exactly that. The Torah as usual is terse even in the dialogue it provides. But the reader confronted with the pithy phrases in the Lord’s mouth must try to fathom their meaning. And how can we do that unless we look to the text for context? Right after this conversation, the Torah tells us that Cain had words with his brother Abel, but again does not tell us the substance of their conversation. We are asked to imagine it, guided by what happens right afterward. For after they had words, the Torah tells us, it came to pass that when they were alone in the field Cain rose up against his brother and slew him. Did Cain tell his brother of his conversation with the Lord? Or did he repeat to his brother the same litany he had told God? And did Abel respond with sympathy or did he lord his own perspicacity over his older brother? Whatever the words exchanged – and the reader is invited to fill in the blanks – they must have stabbed Cain to the quick, provoking his jealousy which rose to the surface and impelled him to his terrible crime. For who among us does not know the murderous impulses that jealousy can provoke, especially when hurt gets mingled with love? What sibling does not at some point explode in rage against another? Which hurt lover does not do likewise with his or her beloved? And who among us will not regret succumbing to the tyranny of his or her passions once our anger is spilled?
For so it happens with Cain, when the Lord asks him that famous question: Where is Abel thy brother? And Cain responds with that even more famous answer: How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper? The question astounds the Lord, for it resounds far beyond this story. On the face of it, Cain seems simply to be trying to deny responsibility, reminding us of the earlier scene in the Garden of Eden when the Lord’s voice booms out to Adam: Where art thou? But there is a larger question too: how far does my responsibility for my brother extend? What if he provoked me with his nastiness or thoughtlessness, pushing my buttons beyond the bounds within which I normally contain my passions? Is every man truly my brother? It is good to be nice, but it is not always easy.
The Lord, however, is not interested in motivation. He is interested in outcomes. What have you done, Cain, the Lord asks, for the blood of your brother cries out to Me from the ground? Murder, the Lord and the Torah is saying, is what is beyond the bounds of human conduct. The punishment is swift in coming. More banishment, just as happened to Cain’s parents, though now Cain is not banished to the fields of labor but from them, to wander upon the earth. Decidedly, it is a mistake for the children to take on the burdens of their parents’ mistakes. Perhaps it is even a mistake for anyone to try and atone for someone else’s responsibilities. Better, as the Lord said, to look to our own hearts and master our impulses. Thus are we all held accountable. Yet see how the Torah teaches us this lesson; not with a homily of the order: do not murder your brother, but through a vividly dramatic story of blind passion and comeuppance. As the Torah will do in another story of family passions that ends up with the sacrifice of Isaac and its disastrous aftermath.
Here too the aftermath reminds us that no one escapes unscathed from this family drama. For although no mention is made of Adam and Eve’s reaction to the discovery of what their first-born son did, the reader must again imagine it and wonder. Did they succumb to grief? Did they blame themselves? Did they regret ever telling the story of the Garden of Eden to their boys? The Torah says nothing about that, but what reader will not ask themselves what happened when they came upon the body of their murdered son? What reader will not imagine their grief at the loss of both sons, the one slain and the other banished? All we get is a hint after we read of the genealogy of Cain and his descendants. Then the Torah tells us how Adam knew his wife again; and she bore a son, and called his name Seth, saying: for God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him. The grief, we are led to understand, lasted a long time and never entirely disappeared, not even when the parents could overcome their sorrow and renew their love enough to have another child.
This too is the far reach of murder, the great no-no of the Hebrew Bible, even if its stories are strewn with corpses. Indeed, one might say that the rest of the Hebrew Bible is the attempt to answer Cain’s famous question: am I my brother’s keeper? And not only if, but how. The second half of the Book of Genesis, recounting the story of Joseph and his brothers, is only one such reprise. There too we shall see how the passions formed in the crucible of family dynamics, left unaddressed, produce mayhem and regret. God’s disappointment becomes ours, it seems; the mark of Cain the Torah’s version of the human condition. But that is itself another story.
Commentary on the Torah reading for Simchat Torah October 13, 2017
Parashat Vezot Habracha
And this is the blessing. But what is a blessing? Part hope. Part prophecy. Part reminder and warning. Moses is on his deathbed at the end of Deuteronomy as Jacob was on his deathbed at the end of Genesis. But the blessings were quite different, though the reader can hardly escape noticing the similarity of style. Jacob’s blessing to his children was more a reminder to his sons of all their dastardly deeds and a barely concealed wish that their future would be comeuppance for their sins. Moses’s blessing to the children of Israel is full of bounty for all of them, an equally barely concealed wish that all the goodness he has tried to tell them will be theirs should they hold fast to the covenant shall indeed come to pass.
The words of the two men’s blessings have something in common when it comes to Joseph and his tribe. From Jacob’s mouth come the words: Blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that coucheth beneath, Blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. And from Moses’s lips come similar good tidings: For the precious things of heaven, for the dew, And for the deep that coucheth beneath. And for the precious things of the fruits of the sun, And for the precious things of the yield of the moons. But overall the two blessings could hardly be different. Unlike Jacob, Moses is not sickly, is not lying down on his bed about to turn to the wall and die. He is still vigorous, if somewhat slowed down. His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated, says the Torah. Moses understood his time to say goodbye had come, but he was not bitter. The travails the children of Israel had put him through did not leave him with rancor. He chose, rather, to look on the bright side of things, to remember all that God, he, and the children of Israel had accomplished together. And though he knew of their backsliding, imagined and foresaw the backsliding to come, he blessed them nonetheless, hoping for the best, thinking he would add one more word of encouragement in the form of the blessing, because that’s what you do for your children. Moses concentrated on his charges’ strengths and drew for them a picture of fullness and rejoicing, in rather stark contrast to the homilies of admonition and catastrophe that fill the preceding parashot. With his dying breaths Moses chose life, showing the children of Israel what he meant when he had encouraged them to do likewise once they reached the Promised Land and settled therein.
This truly is Moses’s greatness. One understands why the Torah then says: And there has not risen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. As we read those lines we remember only too well the courage and steadfastness it took Moses to take on the Lord of Hosts Himself on behalf of those very children of Israel who had betrayed his trust yet again. We can even begin to understand what it means to know God face to face, the majesty of the conviction to walk thus in life against friend and foe alike and the blessing such conviction ultimately confers. Even to the end Moses keeps his equanimity, knows that the love he bears his children far outweighs the grief they have caused him, remembers that you cannot do much with darkness. Cling, therefore, to the radiance, he tells his assembled Israelites, tells himself, tells us, once again. And in proof thereof, Moses does not gather his feet beneath the bedclothes and turn toward the wall and expire. Instead, he bids his charges goodbye, walks through the assembled throng, walks on and on up the mountain until he becomes but a figure in the setting sun and the mountain swallows him up. And though the Torah tells us Jacob was gathered unto his people, the Torah tells us no such thing about Moses. Only that he died there in the land of Moab, which can still be seen today from the mountain tops of the Israeli Negev; and no man knows of his sepulchre unto this day. But though we do not know his grave site, we have his blessing. For which we are blessed. And for which we are bound to bless in turn.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 23, 2017
Once again we read the Torah, marvel at its prescience, swept away by its poetry. The Israelites shall rouse God to jealousy with a no-god, Moses predicts to the throng assembled at the foot of the mountain he shall soon ascend, and He in turn shall rouse them to jealousy with a no-people. Who are a no-people if not the Palestinians, they who come from Egypt and Arabia and the great Umma of the Muslim desert and claim their land is occupied while they never had that land in the first place, never exercised sovereignty therein, a no-people claiming title to a land that God long ago gave to His beloved Israelites as a land to be cherished, as a home to be developed, as a sanctuary for the law which henceforth was to rule human society. Two thousand years it took to discover the meaning of a no-people, but those who read not the Torah and meditate not upon its wisdom only juggle with the false language of the enemies of the Jews and give their twisted language credence. Thus do the Jews themselves bring Moses’ prophecy alive, turning themselves into a nation void of counsel, who have no understanding. What does one do with a people void of counsel and bereft of understanding but enjoin them to read and memorize the words of the great Torah poem, that the words may enter their skulls even before the meaning does, that the song may guide their hearts before their minds catch up, follow suit and revise the nation’s course? Thus does poetry save the soul even of a nation.
For what is this poem but the dense and succinct repetition of what Moses has already told his Israelites time and time again, the condensed repetition of the blessings and curses laid out before them for forty years now and for three millennia after that? In it we hear snatches of Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, the promise of the land of milk and honey when it is well tended and the law faithfully followed. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, My speech shall distil as the dew, As the small rain upon the tender grass, And as the showers upon the herb. Yes, we think, the rains shall come in their seasons, the dew shall glisten on the ground, the land shall indeed flow with milk and honey which Korach and his fellow rebels once had the temerity to ascribe to the land of bondage. It is this poetry which resounded for so long in the ears of exiled Jewish generations, keeping alive the dream of return, maintaining the dream of a green and pleasant land not in English fields and towns but in the Jerusalem of the City of David, in the Jeshurun which Moses here foretells will one day wax fat and turn the gold of its land to dross, forgetting the tradition which founded its success. And then shall come the curses of Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy evoked in condensed form, a hallelujah of malediction which now reads majestically in its simple thunder: I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men. He almost did. It almost happened. Who cannot read and be amazed? This too is the power of poetry, incantatory, hallucinatory, and all too real.
For poetry, like the Torah, thrives on repetition, alliteration as style and medium for a message that can never, it seems, be repeated enough. That is why the Torah works its way into Jewish prayer, as snatches of this song have done as well. And He made him suck honey out of the crag, And oil out of the flinty rock. And not only snatches of the song, but its pattern as well, surfacing in prayer after prayer whose rhyme and metre follow the rhyme and metre of the Haazinu song. Yigdal. Adon Olam. The daily prayer service. And what is Haazinu but Moses’ swan song, modelled closely on the song he and the children of Israel sang when they had crossed the Red Sea and arrived on dry land. And in that song and in those prayers we see all the beauty of this tremendous experiment in human history commenced in a wilderness atop a mountain. A mountain Moses once ascended as, he explains to his assembled people, he will now ascend another, whence he will gaze on that promised land he has been forbidden to enter and where he will die, gathered unto them. But his song, that glorious song, will echo forever, keeping forever alive the promise and the peril of the promise with which everything good is fraught.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 16, 2017
The hidden things belong to God, the revealed things to us. One wonders what that means. One thinks of Hamlet telling Horatio there are more things in heaven and earth than are thought of in your philosophy. Is that it? One can reason things through, but there is a mystery to life that reason cannot seem to wrap its mind around. Or is it something else? Is God like society, something we cannot see and yet we feel its effects, respond to its expectations, see it in the laws, norms, customs and coin which lead us to act in certain ways and not others, even if the reasoning choice is ours to make? For what does the Torah say when it says that the revealed things belong to us, if not that we may do all the words of this law?
There is a paradox at work here, as there is in every society. God Himself remains hidden, just as society remains hidden from the people who live in it. And yet it is there, seen in its manifestations, in its unfolding. And it works precisely because it remains unseen, though felt. It is the similar paradox the Torah writes about when the poet who wrote the Creation story added that magnificent line that God created man in His likeness. Even those who reject God know what happens when men cease to believe in that. The twentieth century is there as witness, a century that talked about the eclipse of God after men had banished Him and done their worst.
Moses himself warns the children of Israel about that in Vayeilech. When the children of Israel shall forsake their God and worship other ones in the lands they go to, the Lord shall kindle His wrath against them and hide His face from them. Then, Moses tells his rapt audience, as much them as us who stand with them millennia later, they shall be devoured and subject to many evils and troubles, as indeed we were and are. And they shall say when they are overcome by such troubles: are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? Indeed, when we think of what we have seen in the past century, we read these exhortations of Moses to his beloved Israelites and wonder at their prescience. How can it be that he saw so far into the future, saw darkness where Tennyson saw light, saw the downside of so much vaunted progress?
But Moses himself knew something of the paradox of seeing God’s face. When God had thrown His fit because of the golden calf and wanted to wipe out the entire band of Israelite miscreants, He proposed to Moses that He start all over with him. Moses declined and talked God out of His anger. But when God told Moses He Himself would not accompany the Israelites any further on their journey to the Promised Land and send an angel instead, Moses balked. You go with us, Moses told the Lord, or I go not. And when God again relented, Moses insisted He show him proof of the favor in which God Held him by showing him His face. God, however, told Moses no man can see My face and live. So He had Moses stand in the cleft of the rock when he once again ascended Sinai and showed him His back as He passed by.
What do we learn from this story except that one cannot look at God directly and live? God Himself cannot be seen, reflected in the injunction of the Second Commandment not to make graven images of Him. But just because God cannot be seen does not mean He does not exist, does not mean we do not need Him. Nor does it mean that because He may not be seen He hides His face from us. God is always with us. His presence, as Moses well knew from personal experience, is eternally necessary for human enterprise to prosper. Beware, he tells his audience on the eastern bank of the Jordan, beware of the day when God shall indeed hide His face from you. Then you shall know how He is always with you, how necessary He is for social life to function, for law to rule the unbridled passions. Beware, we may translate his admonition to contemporary idolaters eager to overthrow the system they mistakenly take for society, thinking it rigged as they think God is rigged, for when society does indeed break down, you shall come to regret that which you have overthrown; and all the more so when that society is the rule of law, the very same the Torah set in motion, as Moses reminded his assembled Israelites there in the Aravah. The same Moses who did not see the face of God, but when he came down from Sinai the second time to assure the Israelites that all was well, his face shone so much from having glimpsed even God’s hinder parts that he had to put on a mask so that the Israelites could hear the teachings of the Lord they could not bear to see.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 9, 2017
Parashat Ki Tavo
Ki Tavo. When you come into the land. What a lovely phrase, full of promise, a blessing unto itself and good for all of us, everywhere, at all times. And indeed, this is how the parasha begins, with a promise and a blessing, for the opening line is a bit different. And it shall be, the Torah says, when you come into the land, and take possession and dwell therein; and what follows is not only a promise but also an ordinance. When you are properly ensconced in the land, Moses tells the children of Israel, you shall take of the first fruits that you harvest from the ground, and put them in a basket and bring them to the place where the Lord shall choose to dwell. And to the priest who officiates at the time you shall say that you profess unto the Lord your God that you have indeed come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our forefathers to give to us. And the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it before the altar of the Lord and you shall recite the following.
And what is the following if not the condensed version of Jacob’s descent into Egypt and the exodus of his Hebrew descendants from that land, four pithy sentences that have worked themselves into the Passover Haggadah and become a foundation memorial of the Jewish people. A wandering Aramean was my father, a phrase that stands in wondrous counterpoint to the opening phrase of the story: when you come into the land. Exile and exodus, wandering and settling, the human journey caught between its antipodes, the eternal journey of the Jewish people lived and recaptured over and over in the poetry of its singers from the Bible to the incantations of Yehuda Amichai.
But in the opening lines of this parasha we are celebrating the homecoming. And so another line is added to the story of the Exodus, underlining its purpose: And the Lord brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And the bringer of gifts in his basket which he brings to this housewarming party adds a few more words of thanks: And now, behold, I have brought the first fruit of the land, which Thou, O Lord, hast given me. Then, Moses tells his wards, you shall set the basket down before the Lord and rejoice in all that He has given thee and unto thy house. You shall rejoice, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in your midst. The words themselves sing of rejoicing, as they will again at the annual festival of Sukkot, when the Israelites shall again bring the fruits of their harvests to give thanks unto the Lord and be altogether happy.
Homecomings and housewarmings. Joyous occasions which call for celebrations, as the Jews do and as all of us do when the occasions present themselves. And how do we celebrate? Not, as Israel’s neighbours do, by firing Kalashnikovs into the air, but with a tiny basket of goods that contains not only the first fruits of our harvest but also our hopes for the future, a future of security and prosperity, when the rains shall come in their seasons and the children shall come in their time, as the blessings Moses talks about soon after put it so poetically. And as the Jews have done in their return to their land with modern Zionism, a movement with all its zigzags that nonetheless has produced a flourishing country with blessings galore for its inhabitants and those beyond its borders who partake of those blessings. For what is the basket of goods that the Jewish homecoming of modern Israel has brought to the world if not desalination, miniaturized medical procedures, phone apps that put people in touch with one another from the ends of the earth, not to mention an exemplary democracy that has ingathered exiles of all nationalities, Jews and non-Jews, turning the biblical injunction to rejoice with the stranger that sojourns in your midst into a living reality.
And it shall be, when you come into the land: as true today as it was three thousand years ago, such is the power of the Hebrew Bible and the Torah that lies at its heart, promising, prophesying, protecting both promise and prophecy through words written down and repeated year after year, festival after festival, working their way into texts that endure because written and recited generation after generation. Thus does a book make a people of the book.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 2, 2017
Parashat Ki Tetze
This is a Torah reading that brings up all the contentious issues around modernity and religion. For those who think religion is old hat, something like what Marx said should be consigned to the dustbin of history, this parasha can easily be taken as grist for their mill. Look how it starts. If you take a good-looking woman captive in war, the Torah says, and want to marry her, then bring her to your house, shave her head, pare her nails and let her mourn her parents for a month before you take her to be your wife. Then, if you find out you don’t really enjoy her, you shall let her go where she wants, but you cannot sell her for money because you have humbled her. Not so good, our feminists would say. Is a woman to be treated as an object for a man’s pleasure and her rights thus regulated, both for good and for bad?
Then there is the matter later on in this parasha of a man who lies with his wife and comes to hate her, and then slanders her by accusing her of not being a virgin on her wedding night. The Torah rules that in such a case the parents of the damsel shall bring the woman’s wedding garment on which the couple made love to the elders of the city, spread it before them and offer proof that the man’s charges were baseless. In that case, the elders shall chastise the man and fine him a hundred shekels which shall be given to the woman’s parents. Furthermore, the woman shall remain his wife and he may not get rid of her for the rest of his days. However, if the tokens of virginity were not found in the woman, the Torah rules, the elders of the city shall bring the damsel to the door of her father’s house and stone her. Again the modern reader is shocked, both by the severity of the punishment and by the lop-sided expectations of proper sexual behavior between the sexes. The woman clearly is the standard bearer of sexual purity, an onus which runs against contemporary notions of equality, let alone sexual liberty.
And if that were not enough there is the further matter of a man who lies with a married woman. The punishment for such sexual transgression is death. But if a man lies with a betrothed woman who is a virgin the case is treated somewhat differently. If the copulation occurred in a city the punishment is the same. The man shall be stoned because he humbled his neighbor’s wife and the damsel shall be stoned because she did not cry out. If the incident occurred in a field, however, only the man shall be put to death, for it is presumed that the woman did cry out but there was no one to hear her. Lastly, if a man lies with a virgin who is not betrothed and they be discovered, the man shall pay the woman’s father fifty shekels of silver and take her to wife, and may not get rid of her all his days. Modern outrage at these statutes hardly needs commentary. Why is the woman always considered the property of the man? Why is a woman not free to do with her body and heart as she feels? Why should religion lay down the law for sexual behavior and punish it so severely?
One could point out that within the expectations generated by a tribal society, the Hebrew Bible was far in advance of its peers even when it came to the status of women. In the last case cited, for example, the law indicates that if a woman cries out for help, what is involved is not consensual coitus, however frowned upon, but rape. And even the previous cases referred to in this parasha indicate a concern that a woman’s integrity be respected within the norms of the society. Hence no selling of a wife even taken as a war captive, because she should not be treated as a slave. Nor should a man be allowed to slander his wife to express his sexual displeasure. Of course the other side of the coin offends, the presumption that a woman is subordinate to a man, be he her father or husband; that a woman has to embody standards of sexual purity that a man does not; that sexual purity is what the religion says it is.
On the other hand, the Hebrew bible can hardly be considered a puritanical text. Take the word humbled, for example, that recurs frequently in these pages, referring to sexual congress. It is the same word we first came across in the story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, who was romantically involved with Shechem, the prince of the neighboring city. Dinah’s brothers went and killed Shechem even after he was betrothed to their sister. When lamely reprimanded by their father, the brothers justified their actions by claiming they were avenging the sullied honor of their sister. What, they said, shall our sister be treated as a harlot? Subsequent glorifiers of their actions have sided with the brothers, justifying their position by pointing out that at the beginning of this episode the Torah says that Shechem humbled Dinah. Some, feminists included, have interpreted that to mean raped. But one could just as easily argue that the text indicates Shechem and Dinah were consenting lovers, and Shechem was but a man who lay with a virgin and then wanted to take her to wife. In which case our sympathies lie with Dinah, and we shake our heads at the misguided folly of the brothers, just as we do at that of the Capulets and Montagus in Romeo and Juliet. But we are modern people, are we not?
So is the Hebrew Bible, which never made any bones about its willingness to talk about matters sexual and passionate and the trouble that arises when the floodgates are opened. People are always eager to be humbled. Sex is the touchstone which sends our passions into orbit. The Torah’s tale of caution is always be wary of your passions, keep your eyes open, establish laws that seek to contain them within bounds that do not cause untold harm. For there is always a price to pay, as every character in this magisterial story knows, from Abraham to David. Even in this parasha reference is made to that in the law concerning the right of inheritance when a man has two wives, one beloved and one hated. You shall not favor the son of the beloved wife, the Torah says, but shall give to the eldest his due, even if he is the son of the hated wife. Our patriarch Jacob had two wives, his beloved Rachel and his hated Leah, as the Torah once refers to them. He favored the beloved wife's son and it brought disaster upon his family. See, the Bible now says, what can happen when your sexual drives interfere with your parenting. So let’s put a fence around our passions with some laws. And since you will most likely seek to circumvent them, Moses warned the Israelites two parashot ago, in Reeh, which means see, be careful not to deviate from the statutes I lay down for you.
But though Moses wrote that and the Torah says that, the text constantly belies the strictness of that admonition, which should not be taken as a fundamentalist stricture but rather as a good piece of advice. For the laws of the Torah are embedded in stories which serve as reasons for the laws, indeed for the rule of law itself. And the purpose of laws is not to impose rigid sexual or other norms to buttress tyrannical authority, but to figure out a way to reign in passions without turning society into bedlam. Indeed, when you read of all the other case law in this week’s parasha, you cannot but admire the diversity of the subjects covered and the sometimes even contradictory nature of some of the ordinances, at least on the face of it. A Moabite shall never enter the assembly of Israel, we read. But Naomi was a Moabite who did, and King David descended from her. You shall not admit a Moabite, the Bible says, because Moab did not facilitate your passage through their lands when you came forth from Egypt. Neither did Edom, and yet the Torah says you shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Nor an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land. Life is complicated, the Torah knows, and grudges are best not kept when it is possible, though some are, as the injunction to blot out the Amalekites at the end of this parasha attests.
Even here the Torah has the honesty to contradict itself, as if it builds into its sometimes seemingly contradictory laws a confession about the complexity which the human presence in God’s world entails. Even the Master of the Universe is drawn into our mess, turning the Torah into a guide for the perplexed, as Maimonides well knew. No surprise, then, that even his guide is subject to challenge and interpretation today, centuries after he wrote it. Just as we challenge and interpret the Torah itself today, millennia after it was written. The Torah, after all, begs for that, for the tale it so splendidly tells is more complex than the words that tell it. And even the words are pregnant with ambiguity. Thus are we humbled.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 26, 2017
Judges and officers shall you have above you, the Torah says. Judges to meet out justice and officers to lead you into battle, because without a sovereign state there will be no justice and without a stout army there will be no state. But even when it comes to matters military the Torah is not short on literary splendor.
When the nation of Israel is to go forth to battle, the officers are commanded to winnow the troops. A man who has built a new house but not dedicated it, a man who has planted a vineyard but not eaten of its fruit, a man who has betrothed a wife but not enjoyed her – all shall stay at home. As for a man that is fearful and faint-hearted, let him go and return to his house, lest his fear contaminate others, though the Torah puts it thus: lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart. One need look no farther than this parasha to see where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Henry V’s peroration.
As for the rules of engagement and victory, the Torah is equally eloquent, even if eloquence does not temper the severity of the war aims. When you fight a city and it sues for peace, then its people shall serve thee, but their lives shall be spared. But if it fights you then you must besiege it, and when God gives you victory, you shall smite the males with the edge of the sword but the women and children and all the possessions thereof shall be yours. With one exception, Moses reminds the children of Israel. That rule is good for cities that lie far from your borders. But for those that lie within the boundaries of the land God has promised you, no one shall be spared and no booty taken, for their inhabitants are an abomination and must be utterly uprooted. Wise words then and wise words now; pertinent then and pertinent now. For so the Palestinians and the Muslim umma in whose name they speak regard the Jews of contemporary Israel and so they deserve to be paid back in kind; though unlike its neighbors, contemporary Israel need not and ought not exterminate its enemies, but simply expel them from the land they pollute. They are too proximate to be dealt with kindly, as history has shown time and again. Samuel warned Saul and he paid no attention. British military officers warned the Colonial Office, but it paid no attention. Jabotinsky warned the Zionists and they paid no heed. And so it goes, the present Israeli government being no exception, even as its leader pays lip service to Jabotinsky, though it is debatable whether he reads the Torah as he is enjoined to do in this parasha. For if the king is supposed to read the Torah so that he may learn to fear the Lord and keep all the words of this law and these statutes, why should a Prime Minister not do likewise?
And lest the contemporary reader think the Torah is but a blood-thirsty text, he or she has but to read on to see that the siege warfare of ancient Israel is tempered with mercy and its embrace of war is far from enthusiastic. When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, the Torah says, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them. Thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of field man that it should be besieged of thee? What a sentence! the reader thinks, stopped in his or her tracks. Does it not give pause? one invariably asks, inviting the reader to consider how men wreak havoc far greater than does nature and enjoining us to think how to rein in the impulse to strike out and avenge? Indeed, is not this sentence the very impetus behind the Israeli Defense Forces’ code of ethics, which makes of every Israeli soldier a remarkable human being in the midst of such trying circumstances? One has only to remember the battle of Jenin and the slander of Israeli war crimes spread by Arab leaders echoed in the western press to see the difference reading the Torah makes even to the conduct of war. For even Palestinian gangsters who escaped the carnage later told the Egyptian press how the Israeli soldiers were like cannon fodder to them, going slowly from house to house so as not to harm innocent civilians while Fatah snipers took lethal aim and mowed them down.
Is the tree of field man that it should be besieged of thee? This simple question, this line of poetry, shines, as does the entire text in which it appears, millennia later. Yet it ought not to be forgotten that it is only one side of the equation, of which implacable hostility to nations that indulge in child sacrifice is the other. Gratitude to trees and mercy toward the human beings trees nourish are the more enduring values, as God taught Jonah as he sat under the gourd outside Nineveh and bemoaned its loss. But for such kindness to endure and irrigate our lives, the societies that nurture these values must be protected from those who seek to destroy them. Justice still needs military protection, just as Israel still needs to send in its army to Judea and Samaria and clean up the land.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 19, 2017
See, Moses tells the children of Israel. Behold, a blessing shall come upon you if you follow the ways of the Lord. For seeing truly is believing, as the Lord Himself knew well, having seen and having declared that it was good after He laboured for six days to create this world. But when the world started to unfold the Lord saw it was otherwise, and though He was disappointed with His Own Creation He did not shrink from seeing clearly what He had wrought. And angry though He was He yet relented on His anger and spared the world with Noah, and again with Abraham, and again with the children of Israel at Sinai and in the wilderness of Paran. For the Lord had learned long ago that the heart of man harbors evil from the get-go. Hence His infinite mercy, but also His refusal to let men off the hook, and of all men least of all the Jews. And so Moses warns the Israelites again and again in these instructions which he never tires of repeating, for he too knows they will repeat that which he warns them against.
When you come into the land, Moses reminds them again, you shall, to the extent that it is in your power, bring your offerings to the place where the Lord shall dwell to eat them therein. But as there is only one God so there is only one place where He may dwell in the land He is bequeathing to you. Make sure therefore to destroy all the places of idol worship and rid the land of the nations who sacrifice to them that you inquire not of their gods, for the Lord cannot abide them. There is not an abomination that they do not do on behalf of their gods, Moses stresses to his assembled Israelites, and to make it crystal clear to them he adds that one instance which says it all: for even their sons and daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods. To rid the land of these inhabitants therefore is to put an end to child sacrifice, as God enjoined Abraham back in the Book of Genesis.
For those who think God discriminates unfairly against the Canaanites, they have but to read on to see that the Lord is just as implacable to Israelites who would lead their countrymen astray. If anyone, however close a kinsman, shall entice you to go and serve other gods you shall not only ignore him, but put him to death, Moses tells them. And if an entire city of the Israelite confederacy shall have the effrontery to do likewise, you shall smite the inhabitants of that city with the sword and destroy it utterly, burning everything within it and leaving it a heap forever.
There are those who would say see, war and extermination is what the Bible preaches in the name of religion and the one true God. But those who would have us see thus are the ones who truly do not see. For they avert their eyes from the evil that runs rampant in the world, and especially the evil that is child sacrifice, whose practitioners cannot be cajoled into abandoning their evil ways. Only the fear of the Lord struck into their hearts can make them stop. And though one can strike that fear into one man’s heart atop Moriah, one cannot do so to an entire nation. For a nation follows the norms which its society teaches it to expect, which in this case means latching the evil in the hearts of men onto the evil it practises, incites and condones. Think of ISIS in our day, and think of the Palestinian Authority from whom ISIS learned its evil ways and whose leaders lay claim to a Canaanite ancestry. When you bring up young children to go and murder at random, as the Palestinian Authority does to its young and sets them loose on Israeli streets and markets, you do nothing less than organize your society around child sacrifice. Just as when ISIS marshals the young it captures and seduces into the murder of all it deems infidels, it does no less. With such societies there can be no truck. They can only be destroyed that the earth may be cleansed of their evil. For if we do not act thus, the Bible taught us long ago, we shall become contaminated in turn and the mercy which God has shown us shall vanish from the places where we live. Which means we shall forget in turn to show mercy to the people with whom we live in peace.
Already western democracies suffer from this blindness, though none suffers as much as the State of Israel itself. In the place where the Lord should dwell Israel has allowed the Palestinians to usurp its authority. The Al-Aksa Mosque has become a focal point for libel and murder by Palestinians of Israelis and by Muslims of Jews. Women and children are mobilized to harass Jews who dare go up to the place where the Lord should dwell and forbid them to pray. They spit, throw stones, even knife police who enforce this outrage. Cries of ‘the Al-Aksa Mosque is in danger’ become the excuse for riots. Verily, as Moses told his assembled Israelites thousands of years ago, if you do not uproot their places of idol worship and dispossess them of the land, you shall become dispossessed in turn. One is tempted to add: if the Israelites did not see then, how can they not see now when Jerusalem is burning before their very eyes and the Temple Mount lies desolate, a heap?
But people in democracies do not see because they cannot believe there are societies organized on the principle of child sacrifice. They think all societies are like theirs and all people are like them. They think all people basically want the same thing, good people wanting the good life. They forget that for most of human history people wanted no such thing and even today that statement is questionable as an adequate description of human motivation and conduct. They have but to read crime novels and psychoanalytic papers to see otherwise, since they no longer read the Hebrew Bible. But they could read the Hebrew Bible, as Jews are wont to do, and see the truths they do not want to see because they are not pretty. Though they are human, all too human, the stuff of humans created in God’s image.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 12, 2017
Ekev. Because. Because you listen to the Lord your land shall be blessed, Moses tells the children of Israel. And what a blessing, the words scrolling down the page and rolling down the ear, promises of fruit of the body and the earth, an increase of kine and harvest and offspring galore, for there shall be no barren women in the land and no barren cattle in the field. A far cry from the famine struck land when Abraham first appeared on the scene with his barren wife, whose difficulty to conceive sowed so much trouble. But God is great and remembers His promise, and the promise was a land of milk and honey, whose stones are iron and whose hills are brass and where the rains fall in their seasons. A good land, Moses will tell his gathered flock, painting them a picture of a land flowing with lovely brooks, fountains and depths, where water springs forth from the hills and winds its way through the valleys, yielding wheat and barley, fig-trees and pomegranates and the intoxicating fruits of the vine. Indeed, so lovely is the land that when the Jews finally returned there last century and found scrabble and neglect they did not despair, but set to work to redeem God’s promise and turn it once again into a verdant and rain-soaked paradise, though today it is called drip irrigation and desalination. And instead of iron and brass there is WhatsApp and light rail and a state of the art arms industry whose wonders are sought from India to California. But when you go there you still believe you are going to a land of milk and honey, the complaints of the Israelites who left Egypt notwithstanding, even two thousand years of exile notwithstanding, not to mention the high price of milk and honey and the even higher price of living in the only Jewish state in the world because its wicked Muslim neighbours work day and night to destroy it. And because the Jews do not listen to the words Moses told them so long ago.
For the conflict between Israel and her neighbours is biblical in stature and kind, and its resolution calls for exactly what Moses prescribes in this week’s parasha. Do not be faint of heart, Moses tells his band of would be warriors, for God shall go with you. He shall send the hornet among your enemies and discomfit them and they shall not be able to hide from you, but shall perish. And when that happens you shall obliterate all trace of them. Take naught of their gold and silver, burn all vestiges of their graven imaged gods, lest you bring abomination into your hearths and a curse into your land. Do not, moreover, think the Lord is doing all this because of your good looks and your righteousness. No, He does this because the people who inhabit the land are wicked to the enth degree, their evil so great the land in which God has chosen to start His Creation anew cannot abide them. Therefore, if you love the Lord with all your heart and all your might and all your soul, you will do His bidding and follow in His ways and harken unto His advice. You will rid the land of these evil-doers that you may establish therein the laws He has given to you in Horeb. Twice given you, in fact, for I had to ascend the mountain a second time after you had sinned so grievously when I first received the hewn stone tablets of the Law. And if Moses were alive today, as alive as his words still are, he would tell the Israelites exactly the same thing.
For what are the Palestinians and the Arabs and the Muslims who burn Jewish greenhouses and murder Jewish citizens and stone Jewish rail cars and uproot Jewish train tracks and swarm Jewish worshippers but people wicked beyond belief? An what do such people, who have for a century now falsely accused Jews of wanting to destroy their holy places and whipped up their countrymen to a frenzy of hatred and vituperation against these same Jews who have sought to accommodate them time and time again, what do they deserve but conquest and expulsion, as did their forerunners from whom they sometimes claim descent? But the Jews today, like the Jews of old, do not take the Torah seriously. Not the rabbis, not their political leaders, not their countrymen at home and abroad. They seek accommodation with evil and receive contamination in return. They are ashamed of the good that they have brought with their return to the Promised Land, ashamed of their rule of law, their liberty and democracy, their morality and ingenuity, their increase of kine and harvest and offspring galore, whose beautiful lives are offered as sacrifice on the silver platter of political correctness and fear of offending the nations they mistakenly think are more powerful than they are. In short, they have forgotten, abandoned and betrayed the Lord, and so have betrayed His promise and the Promised Land which He had promised them via their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
And because they do not listen to the ordinances which Moses handed down to their forefathers yet again on the eastern bank of the Jordan, they must needs read them again. Over and over do we therefore read the Torah, which over and over Moses taught our forefathers. But when people learn nothing from history, all that is left is poetry, a string of words more powerful than all the betrayals and blunderings of a wayward and stiff-necked people. As: this Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, whose stones are iron and whose hills are brass and whose rains fall in their seasons. And sometimes even one word is enough for us to hope this chosen people who refuse to be chosen will finally choose. Ekev. Because.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 5, 2017
Moses goes on with his mixture of recollections and admonitions, retelling the stories of incidents past with a new twist or perhaps simply filling in gaps which he did not bother to relate at the time. But in one thing he remains constant: that the Israelites keep the covenant whose statutes and ordinances he has taught them over the years. And what is that covenant? One God, unique and unprecedented, Who took them out of the iron furnace of Egypt, gave them the Torah and brought them to the land where they will put His teachings to work.
And so Moses lays it on thick, that it may stick. Those who transgressed, like the fornicators of Baal Peor, are no longer here. But you who cleaved unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you today. For great is the nation that carries out God’s statutes and great is the nation that has such statutes. And even greater is your God, for who ever heard of a God speaking to His people from the midst of fire and the people lived? Who ever heard of a God taking one nation out from amidst another with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm? Unto you alone He showed that and unto you He did that, because He loved you and because you are special to Him. Know therefore this day, Moses tells the children of Israel, and lay it in thy heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and the firmament below; there is none else.
These, it should be noted, are words that have worked themselves into the Alenu prayer, just as the words about those who cleave unto the Lord being alive today have worked themselves into the Torah service. And after Moses has repeated to the Israelites the Ten Commandments he reminds and insists they are to keep His statutes and commandments once they enter the land, that it may go well with them. Indeed, Moses tells them in his own summary of the Ten Commandments that succinct homily that has become the hallmark of Jewish prayer ever since: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might. And you shall teach these words unto your children, and make them for a sign upon thy hand and a frontlet between your eyes and put them on the doorposts of your house.
And when your children ask you once you have settled in the land and prospered, what are all these ordinances and statutes of the Lord and what are they to us, then shall you say to them; we were once slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And just as these words have entered the Passover Haggadah, so the words slightly changed in Moses’ recounting earlier of the fourth commandment, the one enjoining the Israelites to observe the Sabbath, have worked their way into the blessing of the wine every Sabbath eve. If in the Book of Exodus the Ten Commandments invoked the Lord’s work of Creation to justify the day of rest, here Moses invoked the exodus from Egypt to do so. And so in the Kiddush sung over the wine on the Sabbath eve, we celebrate the day of rest both in memory of the work of Creation and in memory of the exodus from Egypt. Thus did Moses ensure that what he said to the Israelites gathered round him when he recalled the events of Sinai would apply to every generation. Remember, he told them, the Lord made a covenant not with our forefathers, but with us who are all alive today. And so it is for Jews still, three thousand years and counting, one conquest, two exiles, two returns later.
Herein lies the literary brilliance of the Torah. In all its repetition and alliteration, in all its doubling over itself and inner commentary, it creates a work of literature that shines for all the ages, slipping in poetry that becomes prayer – for what is prayer if not poetry? – and turns the people whose saga it is into a people through its very words. The words are so powerful, so poetic, so brilliant, they turn what they proclaim into reality. The people Moses enjoins and cajoles to cleave to the covenant do in fact do so, in spite of all their slip and back-sliding, because the words see to it that they do. These words find their way into prayer books and Passover stories, into book titles and novels far removed even from the time and place and nation that conceived them. Romeo and Juliet. Abasalom! Absalom! East of Eden. On and on it goes, the story of the Jewish people that created the Jewish people now become world history. And to think there are those who would dismiss it as old hat.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 29, 2017
Moses remembers. On the eastern bank of the Jordan, in the Arava, Moses recalls the journey that brought the Israelites to this spot and time. The journey that should have taken eleven days, but instead took forty years because the Israelites refused to go up and conquer the land even after spying it out. Understandably then, Moses dwells on that incident. But the incident as he retells it is not the same as the incident as it happened, certainly not as it was told in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 23, parashat Shelach lecha.
There we read that the Lord spoke unto Moses and commanded him to tell the children of Israel that every tribe was to select a man to go on a scouting expedition. The Torah then lists the names of the men, adding that these are the names of the men that Moses sent to spy out the land. But when Moses tells the story to the next generation in the opening parasha of the Book of Deuteronomy, once they have reached the Jordan but before they will cross it to conquer the land their fathers refused to conquer, Moses tells them a different version. Now, he says, he had told the Israelites to go up and conquer the land, but they, everyone to a man, came to him and suggested they send men to search out the land and bring back a report. And the thing pleased me well, said Moses, and so he took one man from every tribe and sent them on the scouting expedition.
Why the difference, the reader asks? And what does it tell us, both about the Torah and about the Israelites? And even, perhaps, about ourselves and a somewhat similar situation which we face?
Moses is old. Very old. And though the Torah tells us that at the end of his life his eye had not dimmed and his force had not abated, one may nonetheless assume his memory was not as it had been in his youth. The events he recalled were forty years old. The mind, even in a younger man, always plays tricks when recounting how things happened. Details change in the telling. I asked you to go becomes you asked me to go, and if those involved are no longer around to contest the latest version, the truth gets hazy. But though the facts may change, the emotional truth of the story remains the same. It may even get exacerbated, nourished by time, by the repeated murmurs of the mind as the irritations of the primal event are reinforced by subsequent events of a similar nature.
Our initial reading of the story in the Book of Numbers would incline us to believe that it was Moses who had first floated the idea of sending forth spies before going to battle. But by the time Moses had reached the end of his life, one can easily understand why he ascribed the idea to the leaders of the tribes of Israel. The expedition had ended in disaster. The returning spies had discouraged the Israelites from taking up arms to conquer the country. They even turned on Moses and demanded to return to Egypt. God blew a gasket and wanted to wipe them all out. Moses had to intercede and God punished them with forty years of wandering in the desert until the last of their generation should die out. Nor was this the last of their murmurings against Moses. Understandably, at the end of these forty years, the constant challenges to his leadership and to the task he had set himself to weld these recalcitrant Hebrews into a self-confident nation had taken its toll. In Moses’s mind, quite likely, by now the spies must have been the ones to have initiated this disastrous adventure, just as they had initiated so many other ones. And indeed, at the end of his recounting of the story of the spies he adds that the Lord not only punished you, speaking to the children of Israel, but me as well, forbidding me also to enter the Promised Land. For the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, Moses says, even though the incident with the rock for which Moses was ostensibly punished occurred many chapters later.
In the end, Moses was right. Even had he been the one to suggest sending spies first before going to battle, it was the Israelites who did him in, then and later, just as it would be the Israelites who would betray his trust and ignore his admonitions once they conquered the land and settled it. Which goes to show the difficulty any leader has in persuading a people to act as one, as a nation, when they have ideas that run counter to the policy he or she proposes, even if the policy has the approval of the Master of the Universe. Of course, sometimes the fault of the policy lies with leaders: with their short-sightedness, lack of perspicacity, even pusillanimity. But in the end, the fault ultimately lies with the people whom the leaders represent and on whose behalf they act. The failure of the Israelites at the hill-country of the Amorites was not a result of poor strategy. It was the result of their refusal to assume the mantle of national sovereignty, a failure that has persisted to this day.
In the past week the Muslims, Israeli and Palestinian, smuggled weapons into the Al-Aksa Mosque and used them to kill two Israeli police and injure a third. Israel responded by installing metal detectors at the entrance to the Mosque. In response the Arabs rioted, supported by the Palestinian authorities, heads of Muslim states around the world, and Muslim religious authorities. One Palestinian went and murdered a Jewish family in their home on Shabbat. In the end the Israeli government caved in to the protests and removed the metal detectors. But the Israeli government keeps claiming that Israel exercises sovereignty over the Temple Mount. The events of the past week belie this claim. They make a mockery of Jews’ assertion that Jerusalem is theirs, eternally united; that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people; that Zionism emerged to provide them with a homeland where they will no longer be attacked, murdered and vilified for being Jews. The Israeli government tells lies that the world press amplifies and which Jews then bemoan. One could, and many do, blame the current Israeli government for this situation. Rightly so, I would add, but in the end the government only expresses the will of the people, and all the more so in a democracy where the leaders are elected on a regular basis. The situation on the Temple Mount is a national disgrace. The refusal of the Israelites of today to put an end to it is no less disgraceful than the refusal of the Israelites to go up and conquer the land when told to do so by God and Moses. It points to the same refusal to exercise the duty of national sovereignty, and it matters little where we point the finger. Until the people are willing to act as one and assure that Jews can live in their land and not be afraid, nothing good shall happen.
The Al-Aksa Mosque has been a rallying cry for Arab and Muslim mayhem and murder of Jews for over a century. The only way to put an end to it is to demolish it. That will put an end to Arab and Muslim lies about Jews and the Mosque once and for all. It will also signal Jewish resolve to assert national sovereignty over the land that is theirs and consign the fake Palestinian claim to that land to the dustbin where it belongs. The weak of heart will find all kinds of excuses to evade this national mission, just as the leaders of the tribes of Israel did when embarking on the first Zionist mission so long ago. If the weak continue to triumph, the Jews will continue to wander, today as they did long ago, perhaps even inside the borders of their own land. The longing to return to Egypt takes many forms and has a long history. The choice facing the Jewish people, and not just the Israeli government, is as stark now as it was then. Were the story of the spies not told twice and each time differently, we might not even see that.
The Torah has this brilliant technique of telling stories twice and each time differently. This is the case here with Moses’ retelling of the story of the spies. It is so with the death of Saul, told in two separate and differing versions in the Book of Samuel and the Book of Kings. One might think this technique rather strange, even if modern authors have taken to offer us at times two different endings. One may think it strange because it puts the truth in doubt. Commentators argue over which version is the true one. When it is a religious text that is involved, commentators argue about which version properly reveals the mind of God. But perhaps the moral and value of the tale of two versions lies elsewhere. In offering us two different versions, the Torah invites us to think about where the truth lies and what the truth is. The truth may have nothing to do in the end with which version is correct. Rather, it may have to do with the insights we come up with in trying to figure out the difference between the two versions and the reasons for it. Then, one might say, the truth gets revealed. But to do that you have to read the text.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 22, 2017
Matot begins with the laws of vows, especially concerning women. Massei ends with the laws of inheritance, especially concerning women. In between the Israelites went to war against the Midianites and learned the bitter lessons of booty, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe staked out their claim to the lands conquered on the east bank of the Jordan, and the borders of the land on the west bank which was to be divided among the remaining tribes were delineated. The Levites, receiving no portion, were yet to receive forty-eight cities with open land round about them, and of those forty-eight, six were reserved as sanctuary cities of refuge for those who committed accidental homicide: three on the east bank and three on the west. There then followed the laws of sanctuary, as detailed as the laws of vows and the laws of inheritance.
For so the Torah works, the saga of the nation on its journey to national sovereignty interspersed with a complex system of laws that was to govern life in that land where Israel was to be sovereign. There was purpose to war and purpose to conquest. It lay in the laws which Moses laid out for his flock and which, written down in the Torah, were bequeathed to posterity, first to the Jews and from them to all humanity. A miraculous achievement, when you think about it: words, words, words written on a desert trek, taught in a land where human habitations were few and far between to a band of ragamuffins destined to wither and die before they even made it to the promised land. Against all odds the words survived and the system of laws opened up a new chapter in human history which we are still writing today.
The high priests of secularism would dismiss the Torah as retrograde – religion as opiate of the people and justification for oppression of all kinds – and point to the laws of vows and the laws of inheritance as instances of the way religion discriminates against women. Why, one can imagine them asking, should a man be bound by his vow, but a woman who utters a vow can have it undone by a father or husband should he hear it and disallow it when he does? Or why should a woman who inherits when there are no male heirs be obliged to marry within the tribe simply to make sure that the land inherited remains within the tribe to whom it was originally assigned? Why, they may even ask, should inheritance go to the males and only to the females if there are no male heirs? And from there one can imagine their litany of denunciation growing: religion as fodder for war, as excuse for rape, as the buttress for patriarchy; as the emblem of domination itself.
Such a reading of religion is typically modern and typically one-sided, as the parashot of this week’s reading illustrate. Yes, it is true that a father or husband can disallow a woman’s vow but a wife or mother cannot disallow a man’s. Yes, it is true that inheritance passes through the male line and it is unfair that a woman who inherits must marry within the tribe. One can easily imagine a novel being written about a woman who inherits in the absence of any brother but falls passionately in love with a man from another tribe of the Israelite confederacy. Certainly, the Hebrew Bible offers material to the literary imagination, which already puts it in the plus column. But more than that, the Torah illustrates how the entire system of laws launched ancient Israel on a trajectory that was centuries ahead of its time.
The daughters of Zelophechad had already challenged Moses about their right to inheritance in the absence of any brothers and were vindicated. If now they are hemmed in by such inheritance in matters of the heart, one can see in such a dilemma the source of further modifications in the law. One day down the line a woman who has inherited her father’s plot of land will defy the tribe and marry outside it, just as Tamar defied her father-in-law back in the Book of Genesis when he neglected his promise and duty. The law inevitably elicits more litigation, just as literature solicits more stories. One day a woman will utter a vow and her husband will not disallow it when he hears it, even if he wants to, because women are often stronger than men, as Hannah was stronger than Elkanah. And one day instead of cities of refuge for those who kill unwittingly, there will be a complex set of laws for murder and manslaughter of different degrees to deal with the various mitigating circumstances of homicide, and this because the Torah, implacable in its condemnation of the shedding of blood, also foresaw that even manslaughter was not as clear-cut in every instance as the Torah’s moral outrage on this matter.
Paradoxically, though the Torah stands front and center as the fount of modern morality, it is anything but moralistic. Morality intersects with the law, but the join is never perfect, nor can it be when human conduct is involved. Behavior is always contingent, even in the most extreme circumstances. If it were not, we would never have any stories to tell, and the Hebrew Bible, replete with stories, is both writer and witness of narration par excellence. In this it stands in marked contrast to the arbiters of political correctness in our day. Those who are quick to consign it to the dustbin of history would do well to give it a second thought, and themselves a second chance. And since we are thinking of the way the stories of our lives subvert the claims of God and society and make for perplexity, let us also not succumb to the temptation of religious correctness. As the Torah never tires of reminding us, there is always another moral to the tale. The constraints on women who inherit can also be read differently, bound up as they are with the desire to keep the borders of each tribe unchanged, reflected in the laws of shemita and jubilee. And they in turn are part and parcel of the injunction against lending at interest. Keeping things simple, one might say, a hallmark of an agrarian economy rather than a market and urban one. Something we still long for, even as we rush into complexity.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 15, 2017
The baton is being passed from one generation to another. We see this first in the numbering of the congregation of Israel by tribes. Now the names of the sons of the original brothers are different from those listed at the outset of the Book of Numbers. We learn at the end of the census the reason for this: of those now numbered not a man was counted who was numbered by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of Sinai, for not one of those men were to enter the Promised Land, save Joshua and Caleb.
Only, in recounting the census the Torah lingers a bit when the names of those who strove against Moses and the Lord were mentioned: Datan and Aviram in the incident of Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron; Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who offered strange fire before the Lord and paid for their transgression with their lives. In recalling these two incidents the Torah prepares us for what follows this census, namely the passing of the baton from Moses to Joshua.
No sooner is the census finished than the Lord turns to Moses and tells him he is to go up to the top of a mountain of Avarim and behold the same land which he is not to enter. For once you have beheld the land, God tells him, you shall die, only the Lord puts it more poetically: you shall be gathered unto your people as Aaron your brother was gathered. And the reason, God reminds him, is your rebellion as well, when you disobeyed Me in the wilderness of Zin as the children of Israel disobeyed Me in Paran outside the wilderness of Sinai.
Sinai and Zin. One transgression parallels another. The people sin and their sin eventually contaminates their leaders. Eventually everyone gets swallowed up when folly runs amok. The usual tendency is to blame the leaders and think that all one needs to do to make things better is replace them with better and more principled ones. Contemporary Israel is notorious for this kind of thinking, reinforced by an electoral system which gives party leaders more power and less accountability than that of other democracies which aim to produce governing majorities. But all modern democracies fall prey to this illusion, misunderstanding the way democracies function. For democracies are not prescriptions for utopias, but forms of political organization where power is split at the top between government and opposition, enabling the people to be included, for better and worse, in the political process. In which case the lesson is as old as the Hebrew Bible: the people ultimately get what they deserve. And if they are lucky, as the Hebrews were with Moses, sometimes a lot better than they deserve.
One might have thought Moses felt done in by this punishment for a transgression provoked by the band of miscreants he had led so faithfully all these years. One might have understood a reaction on his part that bespoke hurt and rejection when God told him his journey was over without being allowed to enter the Promised Land. How much had he not sacrificed and overcome to lead the Israelites home! How unfair, it strikes us thousands of years later, that for such a small peccadillo he was prevented from putting his foot on the soil that was more than simply clods of earth! And yet, this most amazing of men and most steadfast of leaders simply turns his mind to the next task at hand. If I am not to lead the people, he tells the Lord, we had better see to it that someone fit does. How moving the scene, which the Torah conveys in that most simple speech of Moses to the Master of the Universe: Let the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation who may go out before them and who may come in before them, who may lead them out and who may lead them in, that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.
Nothing more than these simple words is spoken, but they are enough to move the reader to tears of admiration and gratitude even now. One imagines the scene. Perhaps Moses rubs the dirt with his toe. Perhaps he sits on a rock and surveys the landscape, reminiscing his past, sifting his trials, and letting it all go. One pictures him smiling at the hurt he so keenly feels and then at the future he so vividly imagines. Well, then, he may say to himself, I’d better get on with the job, for these people left to themselves will never even cross the Jordan. And so he raises himself from the rock on which he is seated and turns to the Lord of Hosts with his humble request and reminder. And the Lord responds right away with the name He had had in mind. Take Joshua, the son of Nun, lay your hands upon him, set him before the priest Eleazar, and before the entire congregation transfer your honor to him. And Moses, the Torah says, did as the Lord commanded, but the reader would add: and as he suggested.
For Moses, we deduce, it is business as usual. And in case we had any doubts, as soon as the question of leadership is settled the story picks up with business as usual indeed. Tell the children of Israel, the Lord tells Moses, to bring me My sacrifices, the right ones at the right times. The Lord goes into details, which Moses will dutifully convey, as he will convey much more before he finally climbs the mountain to be gathered unto his people. But we shall have to read the rest of the Book of Numbers and the entire Book of Deuteronomy before that happens.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 8, 2017
This is the parasha of Balaam’s prophecy. Balaam has a bad reputation, but his behavior when it comes to prophecy seems impeccable. Why the bad rap? And what does it have to teach us about the thorny question of prophecy?
When Balak, the king of Moab, sends messengers to Balaam asking him to come and curse the children of Israel on his behalf, Balaam consults the Lord Who tells him he is not to go. You must not curse that people, God tells him, for they are blessed. The next morning Balaam tells Balak’s messengers that he will not go with them, for the Lord will not let him go. Balak does not take no for an answer and sends him more noble dignitaries with the same request, promising to reward him with riches. Balaam answers that he cannot come for all the gold and silver in Balak’s house if the Lord is against it. Stay overnight, Balaam tells them, and I shall consult the Lord. And the Lord came to Balaam that night and told him he may go with Balak’s messengers, but he is only to say what God commands him to say.
Yet as soon as Balaam gets up and goes the next morning, the Torah tells us that God was angry with him for going. Because He was angry He had an angel stand in the way of Balaam’s ass with his sword drawn in his hand. When the ass swerved into the field Balaam beat her for going off the road. Then the angel of the Lord placed himself in a narrow lane with a fence on either side, forcing the ass to press herself against the wall and Balaam’s foot as well. For that too Balaam beat his ass. When the angel of the Lord stationed himself on an even narrower path so that all the ass could do was sit down, Balaam got even more furious and beat her with a stick. At which point God opened the ass’s mouth and ensued that famous conversation between the ass and her master.
Why have you beaten me? the ass asked Balaam. Because you mocked me, he replied, adding if he had a sword he would kill her. But I have always carried you and never once did such a thing, right? the ass replied. Right, said Balaam. At which point God uncovered Balaam’s eyes and he saw the Lord’s messenger standing with his drawn sword. Whereupon the angel of the Lord reprimanded Balaam for beating his ass, saying it was he who blocked the way because the Lord was vexed with Balaam for undertaking this mission. It was obnoxious in the eyes of the Lord, the angel said; had your ass not shied away from me those three times, I should have killed you and spared her. I erred, said Balaam, not knowing you were standing in the way; but if you still disapprove of my going I shall turn back. Then the angel repeats what the Lord had told Balaam the previous night. Go with the men, he told Balaam, but say nothing except what I tell you.
Why, the reader wants to know, did the Lord send an angel to act as a stumbling block and try Balaam’s patience when He had already approved the mission? Was He angry with the permission He had Himself given Balaam to go on this errand, as the Torah says? And if so, why did He have His angel allow Balaam to proceed after Balaam offered to return home? On the face of it, Balaam seems always ready to do the Lord’s bidding: to say yes to Balak if the Lord approves and to say no, as he first did, if the Lord disapproves.
One can only conclude that the Lord was testing Balaam, trying to sound out his heart and the sincerity of his declaration when he first refused Balak’s messengers. Yes, Balaam was frank with the Lord and frank with Balak, but perhaps the Lord suspected that deep down Balaam wanted to accept Balak’s invitation. Not for riches, but for something greater; the poet’s inability to resist declaiming before an audience. And Balaam did indeed declaim, and the words he spoke still resound in our ears, words of praise beautifully phrased, not one time, but three times, just as his ass swerved out of the angel’s way thrice. Indeed, by the third time he waxed poetic not only about Israel but also about himself. Word of Balaam, son of Peor, he starts his third peroration, Word of the man whose eye is true, Words of him who hears God’s speech, Who beholds visions from the Almighty. Balaam is truly inspired and in full flight, confident he has the Lord in his pocket if not at his back. What poet doesn’t when on a roll?
Balaam’s pride is not the most terrible of sins, but it does detract from his performance. For the reader knows that this man who reaches soaring heights when he blesses the Israelites encamped below is as blind as a bat when it comes to truly understanding the ways of the Lord, not to mention the ways of his own heart. Yes, he has talent, can string words together magnificently, but when it comes to seeing the world around him his ass turned out to be more perspicacious than he was. Indeed, she made an ass of the man, and so undermined the value of the prophecy he uttered, at least to the reader who knows the whole story. He would have been better off perhaps to stick to his original decision not to accept Balak’s offer once he heard the Lord’s decision. Yet instead of challenging the Lord and refusing to go even if the Lord allowed him to when the second delegation appeared, Balaam simply followed what he heard, which turned out to be what he wanted to hear. Unlike Moses, he did not try to sweet talk God out of something that ran the risk of being detrimental to His chosen people. If it were good enough for the Lord, he simply said, it is good enough for me, especially when it dovetails with my heart’s secret desire.
Which brings us to the question of prophecy and the vexatious one of prophetic truth. How do we know that a prophet is true, if the prophecy deals with the future? How do we know the prophet is speaking out of an accurate understanding of the world and not out of murkier motives of his own self? All prophets can be false prophets, just as all messiahs wind up being false messiahs. And though the Lord at one point in the Torah tells Moses that you shall tell whether a prophet who speaks on My behalf speaks true if his prophecy comes to pass, that litmus test is often only applied too late. Scientific prediction may work on a somewhat similar basis, but prophecy about the world and human conduct in it seems a dicier task. The strange story of Balaam comes to remind us to beware of prophets and their fine words. Everyone acts, if only in part, out of egotistic impulses. That is human, all too human. And those who can spellbind us with their words are even more dangerous for that reason. Think therefore before you allow yourself to be swept away. Remember the cautionary tale of Balaam and his ass, as superb in its comic psychological truth as his blessings ring rich and wondrous in their poetic power.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 1, 2017
What a strange Torah reading this week – from the sublime to the ridiculous, canopied by the ironic. It opens with the law of the red heifer. Take, the Lord told Moses and Aaron, a red cow, unblemished, which has no defect whatsoever and on which no yoke has ever been laid. Give it to Eleazar the Priest and have it taken outside the camp and slaughtered. Eleazar shall dip his finger in its blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall then be burned in his sight and the priest shall take hyssop, cedar wood and crimson stuff and throw them into the fire that consumes the cow. The ashes shall then be put aside and kept for cleansing people who have become ritually impure through contact with the dead. This shall be done by mixing the ashes of the red heifer with some water and sprinkling the mixture upon the contaminated person. This shall be the law for the purification of unclean Israelites unto the end of time, the Lord concludes His admonition.
But on our way to the end of time the red heifer has entered the stuff of legend. None, it seems, has ever been found, though sightings have been reported, and so it seems even today, the original ashes lost in the mists of time and new ones hardly at hand. But contact with the dead remains a common occurrence, and the contamination we feel from such contact haunts us every time we encounter it. To overcome it we have our rituals: meals after burial, washing our hands upon entering a house of mourning, exhausting our grief through talk. All reflect a desire for life after our brush with death. So it is and so it should be, calling us to rejoin the living even as we mourn our loss, the loss we have incurred and the loss we ourselves one day will be. Perhaps it is fitting the law of the red heifer is one that can never be fully carried out. We do not live forever, but neither do we give in to despair. After every setback, resolve; after every reversal, dedication anew; men and women in search of cleansing once again.
So too the children of Israel, who bury both Miriam and Aaron, Moses’s sister and brother, bury them and mourn them, only to turn on Moses once again as soon as they broke camp and skirted the hills of Edom because that king would not let them pass through his country. And the people murmured against God and Moses, asking once again why they had brought them to this wilderness to die, bereft of bread and water and only that loathsome manna to eat. Whereupon the Lord sent snakes forthwith to bite the people, many of whom died. Then the people came to Moses regretting their actions and begged him to intercede with God on their behalf. Take away the serpents from our midst, they cried. And the Lord had Moses construct an effigy of a serpent and mount it upon a standard, so that anyone who was bitten had but to look upon this copper serpent Moses had fashioned to be cured.
If the red cow was an injunction that could not be carried out because a red heifer proved impossible to find, what are we to say of this remedy for contamination that smacks of low-level magic? Moses had but recently been punished by the Lord for striking the rock instead of speaking to it when the Israelites had last turned against him. Yet now the Lord Himself was resorting to a cure for their latest misdemeanor that was as laughable as it was effective. For the Torah tells us that he who looked upon the brass serpent did indeed recover from his snake bite. The whole story strikes us as a sham. The children of Israel once again appear as people who take nothing seriously, neither life nor death, neither bondage nor emancipation, neither law nor nationhood. Regret replaces resolve. They wander, they err, they complain. They even indulge in parody when the Lord finds them water once they come to rest and the people of Israel lift their voices in song as once they did when they crossed the Red Sea.
Then Israel sang this song, the Torah says: Spring up, O well – sing to it – the well which the chieftains dug. Which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs. And the Torah goes on poetically to describe the wanderings of the tribes: And from Midbar to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamot, and from Bamot to the valley that is in the country of Moab, at the peak of the Pisgah, overlooking the wasteland. Armed with poetry, the children of Israel went to war with the Amorites and defeated Sihon kin of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan, taking possession of their country before camping on the steppes of Moab, on the eastern bank of the Jordan across from Jericho.
But with what is the reader armed? What sense are we to make of this parasha where the tables are turned on the impossible and life seems to turn into a joke? Find an unblemished red cow, we are told, or the contaminated will never be clean. But who has ever found one? Look on the brass serpent fastened to a stick and you shall be cured of your snake bite, but who resorts to that as a remedy for serpent’s venom? Sing for the wells you claim the Lord never sends you, but go to battle, conquer your enemies and prepare to enter the Promised Land. For the Lord is with you, the reader can only conclude, and you are with Him, and together you walk in this valley of grief and confusion, of trial and error, of celebration and waywardness. Sometimes you are silly enough to think snake bites are the comeuppance for sin and beholding a copper serpent will wash it away. Sometimes you are moved enough by the mystery of life and death to observe and comfort and restore. And sometimes you are brave enough to overcome your hurt and misgivings and fight for the country you believe God gave you that is more than simply territory. Then comedy, turned to irony, settles in the camp of quiet conviction.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 24, 2017
Moses’s life has not been easy of late. The people turned on him because they were sick of the manna and demanded again to return to Egypt. Then his brother and sister turned on him and slandered his wife. Then the spies brought back their report and counseled against going up to conquer the land. Each time Moses had to intercede with the Almighty on behalf of his wayward flock, only to witness horrific punishment meted out to the troublemakers, after which this most humble of men took up his task of teaching and taught again this people who would not learn.
Now comes another revolt, this time by his kinsman Korach and his followers, who challenge Moses and Aaron’s right to leadership. Why you? they ask, even though Moses has already set the Levites apart and given them the holy task of serving in the Temple, for which they were to receive the tithes of all the sacrifices brought by the Israelites. Not again, thought Moses, and so great was his distraught that he fell on his face, the Bible tells us. The phrase says everything, conveying to us how his heart must have sunk to his bowels in dismay. Will it never end? Moses must have asked himself, and when his cousins would not listen to reason, but instead accused him to his face of bringing them to the wilderness to kill the entire congregation, Moses lost it. Bring your censers tomorrow to the tent of meeting, he told them, all two hundred and fifty of you, and Aaron shall do likewise, and we will see whom the Lord has chosen.
But when they did so, the Lord told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from this congregation that He may consume them in an instant. Angry and discouraged as they were, they nonetheless begged God not to be angry with the entire congregation simply because of a few malcontents. Thus did Moses stay God’s wrath and spoke to the congregation of Israel, telling them to separate themselves from Korach and Datan and Aviram. And when they did, Moses called on God to send these men and their henchmen an exemplary death, that the people may see that Moses did not seek power for himself, but was merely the instrument of the Lord. And so it was. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the rebels and their households and all that belonged to them. And they went down into the pit alive, the Torah says, into the sinkhole of their treachery. And fire went out from the Lord and devoured the two hundred and fifty men with their censers as well. Then the children of Israel cowered once again and fled the wrath of the Lord, fearful lest the earth swallow them up too.
What a terrible and vivid death, commensurate with the exasperation Moses must have felt at this umpteenth challenge to his leadership, which was not only a challenge to him but a betrayal of his and God’s entire endeavour on their behalf. How abandoned Moses must have felt and how despairing of his lifetime’s work, all that expenditure of time and energy to work through his own ambivalence and rise to greatness, only to have thrown in his face what was thrown in his face when he first rescued one Israelite slave toiling for Pharaoh from the hands of another: Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? As at the outset of the Book of Exodus, so here too again in the Book of Numbers, the story arcing over the pages like the never-ending refusal of the Israelites to leave Egypt and sign on to national greatness. What can the reader’s heart do but go out to this reluctant leader of a reluctant people, empathize with his rage and marvel at his forbearance? Is this not true leadership, not the politically correct one of playing to the people’s prejudice, but laying things out as they truly are, venting one’s anger when merited, yet drawing back from ruining everything because people always disappoint their prophets, especially when the prophet’s only arms are his words?
And so the Lord spoke unto Moses after this terrifying incident, telling him to have Aaron’s son take the fire-pans of the men who have sinned at the cost of their lives and beat them into a plate covering for the altar. Let it be a memorial to the children of Israel that none but the sons of Aaron are to burn incense before the Lord. But no sooner had this word gone forth from the Lord than the children of Israel once again gathered against Moses and accused him of having killed the people of the Lord. At which point the Lord appeared in all His glory and told Moses and Aaron to get out of the way, for He was going to consume this congregation in a flash. Once again, the Torah tells us, Moses and Aaron fell upon their faces, but this time they had no time to argue with the Lord on behalf of their malcontents and slanderers. Instead, Moses merely told Aaron to take his fire-pan, lay incense upon it and carry it aloft amidst the congregation to atone for them. For the plague has begun, he told his brother.
Aaron did as Moses had said. And he stood between the dead and the living, the Torah tell us, and the plague was stayed, though fourteen thousand and seven hundred died from their own obstreperous and nasty actions. But though the plague was stayed, the recalcitrance of the Israelites did not cease, and Moses was yet to endure them for a while longer. We have the second half of the Book of Numbers and the entire Book of Deuteronomy to read before Moses finally gets some rest, the only kind of rest he ever does. Then he will enter the Yigdal prayer: There has not arisen since a man like Moses, a leader and seer unparalleled. A fitting tribute too, for though the swindlers’ censers were beaten into the altar for a memorial, the memorial that has lasted has been the written parchment of the Torah. The altar is long gone, but the Torah’s holy words, the teachings of Moses, are still here, telling his story, our story, the human story of ingratitude and regret and of people who rise above it now and then to keep the story alive, waving a censer aloft so the plague may be stayed, standing between the living and the dead, symbol of the choice that awaits us all, as Moses foretold the children of Israel when one day they come into the land and confront the choice again beneath the mounts of Gerizim and Ebal.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 17, 2017
Parashat Shelach lecha
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. So what are we to make of this parasha, in which the children of Israel play God and Moses once again, repeating their betrayal of Sinai on an even more monumental level, if not to register this chapter in Jewish history as a telling indictment of our fundamental ambiguity to sign on to our national mission? Yet even as our hearts sink at this pathetic repetition of our political stupidity, our minds marvel at the literary genius of this Book of Books which spins poetic gold out of the fool’s gold of childish absconding and an equally childish blundering attempt at repair.
God tells Moses to send the heads of the tribes of Israel to spy out the land they are destined to conquer. Take the lay of the land, Moses tells them, so we will know what we are up against before we go out to do battle. Is the country open or wooded? Are the cities fortified or not? Are the inhabitants few or many, weak or strong? The spies set forth and return at the end of forty days, bringing with them a sample of the fruit of the land and a report of the peoples and where they dwell, who in the mountains and who by the sea. But though they say the land is a goodly land, which surely flows with milk and honey, they advise against going to battle to conquer it. It is a land that eateth up its inhabitants, they say. The people there are too strong for us, they explain, calling them giants, Nephilim, adding that telling phrase of subsequent Jewish history: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
Right away the children of Israel fell to wailing and bemoaning their fate. Once again they turned viciously on Moses and Aaron, screaming it would have been better had they stayed in Egypt to die, and turning to one another they advocated deposing Moses, giving themselves another leader and returning to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb, two of the princes who went with the scouts to spy out the land, sought to dissuade them. God will give us victory, they urged the people, but the people would have none of that and made ready to stone Moses when the glory of God appeared in the tent of the meeting to quell this uprising. And the Lord turned to Moses in exasperation as Moses had turned to Him in last week’s parasha when the children of Israel had complained about the manna. How long will this people not believe in Me, the Lord wailed, as He had wailed at the end of parashat Bereshit when the Nephilim strode the earth and sowed wickedness in the land, leading God to decide to destroy the Creation He had so wondrously wrought? And as He had complained to Moses when at the end of forty days and nights atop Sinai the children of Israel had made a golden calf, God again proposed to Moses that He destroy the Israelites and start a nation anew with him.
But as he had done at Sinai, so Moses did again and sweet talked God out of His fury by appealing to His vanity and reminding Him of His dream. Once again Moses played the Egyptian card. At Sinai he had told God the Egyptians will think Him downright nasty for taking the Hebrews out of Egypt only to kill them in the desert. Now he suggests they will think Him pitiful, having delivered the Israelites from bondage but unable to bring them to the Promised Land. For Your sake, therefore, Moses argues with God, forgive this people their iniquity, citing to the Lord of Hosts the very words God had cited to Him when He had appeared to Moses ensconced in the cleft of the rock on his second ascent of Sinai. And hearing these words God again relented, as the Torah tells us: And the Lord said: I have pardoned according to thy word.
But the people did not get off scot free. Because they doubted Me and the covenant I have made with them, despite all I have done for them, said the Lord, they shall not enter the Promised Land, but wander forty years in the desert, a year for every day they went out to scout the land, until their carcasses shall drop from their bones and they die in the wilderness, all save Joshua and Caleb who did not lose faith. And the Lord sent a plague to consume forthwith the spies who brought back the evil report – His first delivery on His promise. When the people saw this, they were duly chastised. Seeking to make amends, they decided to go forthwith to battle, though Moses cautioned against it. The Lord is not with you, he told them, but the Israelites did not listen. Instead they engaged the Amalekites and the Canaanites from the opposing hill country and were sorely smitten. Defeated, they skulked back to camp, where Moses did what he could do and took up his teaching where he had left off. When you come into the land, the Lord had him tell the children of Israel, and you make an offering unto the Lord, these are the rules, and when you err and wish to make atonement, these are the rules, and so it went and so it goes down to the present day.
How disheartening, the reader is tempted to conclude: Torah as compensation for the failure of political will. For what we have just read is nothing but the Israelites’ refusal once again to seal the deal with God and take up the mantle of national sovereignty without which the Torah loses its meaning. The continuous references to the great betrayal at Sinai omnipresent in this story of the second great betrayal with the spies only underscore the Jews’ historical reluctance to move from tribe to nation and do what had to be done to secure the land in which the Torah is to be housed. Indeed, the very phrase the spies use to justify their abdication – we were as grasshoppers in our own sight as well as theirs – evokes with bitter if apposite irony the argument Moses uses with God to justify His clemency.
The spies invoke Jewish powerlessness to justify their policy, just as so many contemporary Jews do when they refuse to exercise Jewish sovereignty over the Israeli heartland of Judea and Samaria, not to mention the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. What will the goyim say, they ask? Think of how the Muslim world will react, and the UN and the EU, these latter-day spies declaim. What about the White House, they cry with trembling voices of people who think they are smart. But Moses, that most modest of men as we learned in last week’s parasha who yet took on God in all His fury, not once but twice, had no such qualms. He even pointed out to the Master of the Universe that were He to give up on the Israelites the nations of the world would take it as a sign of His weakness and His plans would become an object of derision for eternity. If only our Jews had his courage. If only our Jews learned their lesson so often told and so often repeated in all its calamitous consequences.
Instead, we seemed to have continued the split with which the story of the spies ends. Like children we shrink from our duty, and like children we regret our actions, but in either case we repeat the error of our ways. Faced with hardship we are quick to take the easy way out, and then when we see it is a mistake, we rush to apologize by doing too late what we should have done earlier but is no longer appropriate. Sorry, sorry, we say, but the difficult task of examining our behaviour and mending our ways is never truly undertaken. As the golden calf was followed a year later by the evil counsel of the spies, so was Oslo followed by the stupid disengagement from Gaza. And like our forefathers in the desert, we too wander aimlessly, eyeless in the land where we should see even more clearly, consoling ourselves with the thought that the Torah is more than the land and justifying our political pusillanimity with the concept of Tikkun Olam. This is exactly the split between the Law and the Land with which this parasha’s story seems to end.
What do Jews do when they lose their land? They retreat into Torah, which they claim is more than the land, forgetting that in the founding covenant of the Jewish people the Torah and the land of Israel are one and indivisible. Moses never forgot that, even if all he could do for now is fall back on teaching the Torah to a generation of people who would never enter the land. And if the reader fasts forward to the Book of Deuteronomy, he or she sees Moses never lets the children of Israel forget that. But we, his descendants, forgot and forget that over and over. We did it with the first exile, and then with the second, and now we do it again, excusing each previous failure with a combination of mourning and atonement lifted straight from this week’s parasha. For what are the words of the Yom Kippur service if not the words of Moses to God begging forgiveness as He has spoken: The Lord is slow to anger, and plenteous in lovingkindness, on and on until the prayer responds with those words of mercy: I have pardoned according to thy word. Thus do Jews leave synagogue cleansed and ready to commence again their national treachery.
It is time to put an end to this millennial double dealing. If we read the end of this parasha, we see that God thought He could do this through the obligation of tzizit. Put a thread of blue in the fringes of the corners of your garments, God has Moses tell the children of Israel, that you may remember the commandments of the Lord and not go astray. Do this throughout your generations, the Lord said. But even the fringes with their thread of blue are not enough. What is, O Lord? What is?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 10, 2017
This parasha exemplifies how the Torah exercises such a hold on our literary imaginations. Events intermingle with injunctions, stories with teachings, to produce a timeless text that can be revisited and plumbed for all kinds of wisdom and wonder. It starts with instructions for lighting the candlestick, the very one that was lit once again a thousand years later to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, and the very one that shines on the Israeli coat of arms two thousand years after that. Thus does the word become flesh. Thus does the Torah become fused with Jewish national existence. But thus too does the Torah weave one book with another, the candlestick described in the parasha Vayakhel in the book of Exodus and mentioned in Emor in the book of Leviticus now recalled again after the heads of the tribes had brought their gifts to the sanctuary.
Why here and not at some other point, the reader may well ask? How does an author, even if he be the Master of the Universe, decide to put an event at one point in the story rather than another? One never knows. Even he may never know. But there is a logic to the process, and a rhythm, if the story is to succeed. Paradoxically, it is up to the reader to discover it. Which is why every story needs a reader, but only a well told tale deserves one. For only a well told tale is full of revelation.
The instructions to Aaron about the candlestick follow logically what has preceded them. They also lead nicely into the next piece of business, namely the consecration of the Levites who are given to Aaron and his sons as helpers in the work of the sanctuary. But in recounting how the Levites are separate from the rest of the children of Israel, the writer is also preparing the terrain for the revolt to come two parashot hence. The Levites, God instructs Moses, are to stand in for the first born among the children of Israel, who belong to Him in memory of the Exodus from Egypt. As ministers to the work in the Tabernacle they are to be exempt from military service. Such distinction will rankle, family jealousy will ensue, and the great revolt of Korach and his kinsmen will be the calamitous result. If we do not know that now, we will remember it soon enough. And to help us in that task, this parasha will end with another story of sibling rivalry, this one within Moses’s own family. Once again, the logic of the story-telling reveals itself in the cascade of recounted events of which this parasha is full.
The Levites consecrated, the story now returns to teaching. The subject this time is the observance of the Passover, specifically the obligations concerning the Passover for those who are unclean because they have come into contact with a dead body or are away on a journey. This matter disposed of, the story then turns to the journey of the Israelites. How and when are they to break camp? When the cloud of the Lord lifted from the Tabernacle the Israelites were to move on, but when it tarried they were to remain where they were. For the Lord stayed with them in their journey through the wilderness, a cloud by day and a fire by night, the Torah says, recalling the pillar of cloud and fire that separated the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. And when they break camp, the Lord tells Moses, the priests shall blow on the trumpets of silver he is to make, as they are to blow them when the Israelites go to war, and as they are to blow them to call the congregation to worship. And so begins the journeying of the Israelites.
From injunction we now move back to the story. In the second year since the Exodus, in the second month, on the twentieth day, the cloud lifted and the Israelites set forth out of the wilderness of Sinai and came unto the wilderness of Paran. We do not yet know of the perfidy to come in next week’s chapter, Shelach lecha, but the repetition of the word wilderness already plants the seed that the Israelites will be wandering for a while. Thus were the journeyings of the children of Israel according to their hosts, the Torah says, adding: And they set forward. But before they did Moses turned to the son of his father-in-law to persuade him to accompany them on their journey, for you know the wilderness, Moses told him, and can be our eyes. A deft touch, this, for the mention of his father-in-law’s name, Reuel, reminds us of the last time Moses consulted his father-in-law after their exodus from Egypt. Then his father-in-law counseled him to divide up the task of leading his people by appointing judges from among the tribes to rule over the less important matters. Lest Moses be importuned so much he will collapse under the burden. In another twenty-five sentences this tactic will be reprised by God when Moses becomes desperate in the face of the people’s complaints. We do not know that if we have not yet read the story. Or we do but have forgotten since we read it last. Be that as it may, the seed is again planted of trouble brewing in the wilderness. But the Torah suggests otherwise when it tells us that the cloud did lift, the Israelites set forth, and when it did, Moses rang forth with the words that precede every Torah service in every synagogue the world over: Rise up, O Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee. All will be well, we think, only to turn the page to discover the enemies could be found right in the Israelite camp.
And so we come to the rebellions and murmurings that recall the rebellions and murmurings of the Israelites a year earlier. It is only a second year since the Exodus, but already history is repeating itself. There were people in the camp who slandered the Lord and were devoured by fire. We know not what they said and how they perished, but the story recalls the two sons of Aaron who met a similar fate. But though the people cried out to Moses for respite and received it, they soon started up again. Would we were given flesh to eat, they started in on him once more, and as they complained a year ago, they turned Egypt into a veritable delicatessen – fish and cucumbers and melons, no less, whereas now all they had to eat was the manna of which they were sick.
When Moses heard this he was exasperated, turned to God to tell Him he was at his wits’ end. I cannot bear this people alone, he complained to God. If this is what I have to look forward to, kill me now, Moses beseeched his master. And the Lord told him to gather seventy elders and He will give them some of Moses’s spirit, that they may help him in dealing with this people. Furthermore, the Lord told him, tell the people to prepare themselves, for I shall be sending them meat until it comes out of their nostrils. And the Lord did as He promised. The seventy elders were gathered and the spirit of prophesy came upon them. And a wind went forth from the Lord and brought quail so numerous from the sea that the people gathered them in heaps until a plague broke out and put an end to their lust.
This little chapter deserves a commentary all its own. Its dialogue echoes another one at Sinai and foreshadows another one in Shelach lecha, though the roles God and Moses play are there reversed. What does not change is the backsliding of the Israelites. Once again we see the great truth of the Torah so starkly outlined in the family dramas of Genesis: how men goaded by their passions are quick to anger and hurt, slow to remember and express gratitude. But now the blindness unfolds on a national scale and the consequences are even more momentous.
And once again we are swept up in the drama. A candlestick’s lighting, the consecration of the Levites, the law of the Passover for those unable to be present at the season; God’s cloud by day and His fire by night, tarrying and decamping, trumpets and song, the slander of the people and the slander of a family; events, images, words deftly and brilliantly placed and juxtaposed to make this narrative that will extend far beyond its five books as seamless as it is memorable. Is the Lord’s hand waxed short? God said unto Moses. And the reader wonders: is the hand that brought the quail any less than the hand that wrote the text?
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 3, 2017
More counting. This time the families of the House of Levi and the responsibilities they have for the care of the sanctuary. Numbered and appointed, as the Torah says.
But there is no rest for the lawgiver. And so the Lord speaks to Moses and instructs him in yet further detail about lepers, those who have bodily issues and those who have come into contact with the dead. These matters have already been dealt with, but they seem to bear repeating, especially the injunction to remove them from the midst of the camp where they may spread disease or cause ritual impurity. God is in the detail, it would seem. He is also a Jewish mother, worried His instructions did not sink in the first time. And with good cause, one might add, and so He also reminds Moses that if wrongdoing is committed by man or woman, restitution must be made and a fifth of the value added to it.
Soon thereafter the Lord will move on to the laws governing those who utter the vow of a Nazarite, whose head no razor shall touch unless he be stricken with leprosy, as the reader may remember from the chapter in Leviticus dealing with the treatment of that disease. Once again the Torah is stitched together, one book to another, through word and injunction, statute law and story, even as the Lord would stitch up the Israelite body politic, medical and otherwise.
But before we are given the laws of the Nazarite, the Torah interrupts the flow with a rather startling piece of jurisprudence concerning a woman suspected of infidelity by her husband. Startling. Shocking. Difficult to fathom, and not only by the modern mind. If a man suspects his wife of infidelity, we learn, he may bring her to the priest who shall cause her to undergo an ordeal by water. This consists of his taking the water from the brazen layer that stood by the altar and mixing it with dust from the floor of the tabernacle, which he shall then have the woman drink. But before that the priest shall say to the woman whom he has sworn to confess or deny her guilt that if she be guilty, this water once drunk shall cause her belly to swell and her thigh to fall away. And before she is made to drink the water the priest shall write the curse upon a parchment and blot the words into the water the woman is forced to drink. If the woman drinks the water but her belly does not swell and her thigh does not fall away, she shall be held blameless and progeny shall be her reward. If she drinks and the curse that enters her causes the water to become bitter, her belly to swell and her thigh to fall away, then she is held guilty and will be a curse among her people. And all this because a wife may go aside or the spirit of jealousy has come upon a man.
Understandably, the reader is indignant upon reading this. For one, the reader may ask, can a man go aside but a woman not? Is provision made for a married man who sleeps with another woman to drink the bitter waters of the curse? For two, if only the spirit of jealousy falls upon a man, why should a woman be subject to this ordeal? Is not the man’s jealousy itself also a sin? And for three, even were the woman guilty, how can the Torah inflict such a cruel, because degrading, punishment on a woman in front of the community? The injunction against homosexuality seems child’s play when compared to this.
One can imagine how the exegetes wriggle out of this. For one, they may say that the very fact of the punishment’s being so degrading is enough to make a man think twice before accusing his wife. If anything, the humiliation a jealous man may force his wife to undergo would not only give him pause; it suggests that he ought to take a look at his jealousy as the measure of his love and think how to turn that love to better account. For two, that the man may be stricken with jealousy but not the woman points to the fragile grasp men have on their emotional integrity when compared to women. Women may be hurt when betrayed, but they seek not repair through revenge. They simply become more determined. Think of Sarah. Rebecca. Rachel and Leah. Even Dinah, whose hurt became unspeakable. Or Tzipporah, who turned Moses into an Israelite forever. For three, one may point to this statute as evidence of what happens in a tribal society where kinship rules the roost and male honor runs rampant. All the more reason for replacing it with the rule of law that turns kinship into a cause for kindness. And what is the Torah’s intent if not exactly that? All to its honor, then, for reminding us in such graphic terms what it would have us leave behind.
It may well be that this law, like the law prescribing stoning in certain cases, was never applied. It may be that the rabbis found ways to evade it as well. Certainly, one never hears of this law being applied, not in the Bible and not in the chronicles of Jewish life in the Diaspora. What one does hear, however, over and over, down to the present day, is the priestly benediction that is also to be found in this parasha, only twenty-one lines after we read about these waters of the bitter curse, immediately after the laws of the Nazarite. And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: On this wise shall ye bless the children of Israel; ye shall say unto them: The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord shall make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
It is testimony to the flexible power and creative genius of the Torah that three thousand years after its crafting, the statute concerning the spirit of jealousy that falls upon a man has fallen into disrepute, while the priestly benediction continues to be uttered in sorrow and joy, in celebration and atonement, bringing tears and comfort and peace to the congregants fortunate enough to hear it and receive it. What greater proof is needed that the Hebrew Bible is anything but a fundamentalist text? And how could it be otherwise when the laws are woven into stories that repeat but always with a difference, that speak but whose speech always surrounds the silence at their heart, and whose author is always in the details so numerous that they demand, when they do not beg, interpretation? The Torah, in short, has reform built in to the very structure of its writing. Like modern society which it heralded so long ago, it is a prescription for reformation.
And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Take the sum of the sons of Gershon, the parasha begins. Take the sum, indeed. Take the sum of your laws. Take the sum of your stories. So the Jews did. Mishna. Gemara. Halacha. Haskala.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 27, 2017
Bemidbar. In the wilderness. On the first day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus, the Lord spoke to Moses and had him take a census of all the males twenty years of age and older in the Israelite nation still called a congregation. The purpose of this counting, we soon read, is to figure out how to arrange the camp by tribes for when the Israelites would have to go to war. The census was a prelude to military formation, both for defense and for the eventual war of conquest. As it is said for each tribe, their generations, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years and upward, all that were able to go to war.
There was, however, one tribe that was not to be counted in this way: the tribe of Levi, for the Levites were not to go to war, but to serve in the care of the tabernacle. But they too were numbered, and their genealogy named, with the different families of the three sons of Levi – Greshon, Kehat and Merari – assigned different tasks and hence different places of encampment surrounding the tabernacle. For not only did the tabernacle have to be cared for; it had to be packed up and carried whenever the Israelites picked up camp and moved on. This took care of the northern, southern and western sides of the tabernacle. The eastern side of the tabernacle was reserved for Moses and the families of the sons of Aaron, who, as high priests, kept the charge of the sanctuary on behalf of the children of Israel.
And so we have it, the two purposes of the Exodus – the law and the land – enshrined even in the camp formation of the Israelites. On the one hand, most of the camp laid out according to military logic and precision; on the other and at its center, the Tent of Meeting which enshrined God’s presence and the law that was to guide the nation-to-be when it came into the land. The heart of the matter was the law, but as is the case even today, a strong military presence was needed to defend that law and the society which lived by it.
This arrangement would have a long life, finding its echo in the rebuilding of the temple under Nehemiah when the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile. At that time the Jews rebuilt Jerusalem, repairing the breaches in the walls, one hand on the trowel and one hand on the sword to ward off the enemies who would prevent them from their work. And once their work was done, Nehemiah gathered the people that they might be reckoned by genealogy according to a register he found depicting the families sent into captivity. And once the Jews were counted and the people gathered into the streets before the water gate, Ezra the scribe brought forth the Book of the Law and read it to the assembled congregation. And once again, military preparedness and fortitude surrounded and protected the people and the law that ruled them.
Though the book of Nehemiah comes more than a thousand pages after the opening parasha of the book of Numbers, the line between the two remains unbroken. Thus does the Hebrew Bible work its literary magic, stitching together its stories into the fabric of the nation and welding it together by the law and the land it never ceases to mention and recount.
In this parasha too there is much foreboding and foreshadowing. For though one may wonder why this book starts with a census and the disposition of the camp when the Israelites are still in the wilderness, we will soon read of military adventures that are engaged and aborted and of challenges to Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership from dissatisfied descendants of the House of Levi. For those reading this parasha for the first time, the references will only kick in once the parashot of Shelach Lecha, Korach, Chukat and more are read. But for those who have already read those parashot because the Torah is read over and over each year, it is already déjà vu. We read the genealogy of the House of Levi, how the tasks are divided and the encampments allotted, how Moses and Aaron are singled out for special honor, if also for special responsibilities, and we unconsciously, subliminally, register the revolt against such treatment that is to come. Just as when we read of the disposition of Reuven, Gad and Menashe we think of their future request to be granted title to the lands on the eastern side of the Jordan that the Israelites conquered from Sihon king of the Amorites and from Og king of Bashan.
This is not only literary magic. It is literary brilliance and socially powerful. Here is a mass of people in the middle of a wilderness, only recently liberated from a life of bondage and already run amok more than once. Now we read of an attempt by its leader to organize them into a fighting force devoted to an ideal which they have embraced half-heartedly and ambiguously. The picture seems at once tender and pathetic: a census, a camp, and a sanctuary in the center of it all. An organization according to tribes which holds all the potential of family rivalries and yet which seeks to transform this collection of families into a nation. In short, here in this wilderness, where the promised land is still a dream and the law still a series of injunctions handed down to a people still called a congregation, the seeds are being sown for a society that will one day change the world, a society that will be urban, law-driven, proto-democratic, and merciful compared with what came before. And how is all this done? By telling a story and writing it down and reading it year after year to the congregation that has still not fully committed to becoming a nation. There are those who say it is only a story and stories do not count. But they do, don’t they? That is their power; and when the stories are as marvellous as the ones in the Torah, that is also God’s glory.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 20, 2017
Following so many laws concerning the rituals of sacrifice and the observance of the Lord’s holy days, we now come to the ordinances concerning the land, notably the commandment to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. Furthermore, the Torah tells us, after seven such sabbaticals a jubilee year is to be celebrated, in which land that was bought reverts to its original owner, with adequate compensation paid to the purchaser. For the land is considered to have been leased. Similar considerations govern the situation where an Israelite is purchased as a bondservant by another Israelite. In the jubilee year he is to return to his family.
Such prescriptions underline the fact that neither the land nor the persons of the ancient Israelite confederacy were considered the absolute property of fellow human beings. Rather, as absolute possessions they belonged to the Lord. And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, God tells Moses, for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me. Similarly with persons: For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Whatever one may think of the economic wisdom of such restrictions on property, they have the merit of laying the groundwork for a political conception of freedom. Herein one can see the indebtedness of theories of natural right to the Hebrew Bible. In limiting the ability of any man to own another man or his property forever by asserting that only God can assert such a right, the Torah enshrines the idea that since we are all children of the Lord we are all entitled to certain essential safeguards for life and our ability to protect it. These are the God-given rights that make for a decent and caring society, the very ones that inspired the modern experiment with democracy, where even self-government has limits placed upon it. It is surely no accident that contemporary Israel is itself a Jewish democracy, the two words a living symbiosis rooted in our founding covenant rather than the contradiction many critics suggest.
Again we see the link between ordinances designed to maintain holiness in the worship of the Lord and those designed to continue holiness in the way we treat each other. Already in parashat Kedoshim we saw how the laws proscribing idol worship and governing sacrifices were interwoven with injunctions against mistreating neighbors. Gleanings for the poor at harvest time, respect for the hired hand, for the deaf and the blind, impartiality in judgment, no bearing of grudges, no mixing of diverse kinds, no soothsaying, no prostitution, respect for the aged, just weights and measures, on and on, and all justified by the oft repeated phrase: for I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt.
Here too, in the concluding chapters of Leviticus, we see the link between the injunction to be holy, care and respect for the land, and the conduct of social interaction. The link is none short of God Himself, and the purpose of Sinai enshrined in all these laws He gave to Moses at that mount. For I am the Lord Who took you out of Egypt to be a holy people unto Me, that formulation repeated over and over to drive home the point that the law and the land were one, as Exodus and Sinai were one. Any attempt to dissolve the link would eventually lead to the loss of both, a lesson resumed in Bechukotai when the options were first placed clearly before the children of Israel. If you walk in My statutes, said the Lord, the land will yield you its blessings and you shall live therein in peace. But if you do not, horror and terrors shall overcome you, the land and your lives will become barren, and exile shall be your lot. That is and remains the covenant we have broken so often it is surprising we are still around, attempting for yet a third time to establish a Jewish commonwealth that will live up to its ancient promise.
And yet, and yet; not for nothing does the Torah still exert its power. One has only to think of the enduring appeal of its call when those pioneers of the nineteenth century started their return to Zion. One has only to see the rapturous attachment to the land encapsulated in the labor and song of modern Israel that arose from the ashes of exile. One has only to walk the land to see the devotion and pride of contemporary Jews in its care and the wonder of those who visit the country to appreciate the way the perennial injunction to be a holy people in the holy land continues to exert its force. Those with the hubris to think that the Torah has nothing to teach us about how to preserve contemporary Israel might want to think again. They would do well to reread this week’s parasha and meditate upon its words. Bechukotai. In the footsteps of My laws. We could do worse. We even have.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 13, 2017
For eight parashot now, ever since the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, we have been reading about sacrifices and holiness. In parashat Emor we read again of ordinances for the priests and for the children of Israel with respect to the sacrifices they bring and the way they are conducted. No blemishes in man or animal are to be countenanced, lest the Sanctuary of the Lord be defiled and His holy name profaned. Furthermore, the people of Israel are told, the Sabbath and the Festivals must likewise be observed properly, in perpetuity, as a continuous affirmation of the covenant God established with the Jewish people when He brought them out of Egypt.
But then we are told the strange and horrific story of a son of an Israelite woman and Egyptian man who, when fighting with another Israelite, cursed God’s holy name. For this he was clapped in jail while Moses consulted the Lord about what to do with him. The Lord’s sentence was clear: the man was to be taken out of the camp and stoned to death by all the Israelites. So it was done, and so the many chapters on holiness were brought to a close.
The story is as shocking and perplexing as the one we read about Aaron’s two sons being struck dead for not taking proper care with the fire they offered to the Lord. This story in Emor is even more shocking, for it is not the Lord’s wrath that consumes the transgressor but the participation of the entire congregation in an act of communal stoning. That the Israelites complied with the task only makes the whole event difficult to accept. Many commentators have subsequently taken pains to point out that Jewish authorities have gone to great lengths to ensure that no sentence of stoning was ever authorized once the Jews established themselves in the land. That may well be, but the story in Emor remains in all its horror and sticks in our moral craw.
And so it should. What decent man or woman would ever participate in such a repulsive rite? Alas, we note, it is still a common occurrence in Muslim lands, though we have only to register our revulsion at such acts when they are brought to light. What sense then are we to make of this story in the holy Torah, the book that is supposed to inspire Jewish behavior in perpetuity? There are those who would seize on it to justify throwing the entire book out, proof that religion is but dogma to enforce oppression of the human body and spirit. There are those who would even cite it to argue the moral equivalence between Israel and its enemies. But the Hebrew Bible, though one long tale of transgression, has also bequeathed to humanity its most noble ideals, liberty included, and acted as the solvent so necessary to the emergence of the rule of law, a state that is alive and well in contemporary Israel. One must needs look elsewhere to grasp the purport of this graphic tale, into the dark heart of the Torah itself.
For weeks now we have been reading about the need for holiness. Holiness is inextricably linked to difference because without difference there is nothing, only the formless void out of which the world and the need to see it were created. Difference replicates itself over and over in the course of physical and human evolution, making for greater complexity and greater celebration. Modern society, for example, is enjoyable in part for the greater diversity of human experience it makes possible. But that delight comes with the need to make many more choices than was the case in traditional societies. Choices imply risk, including the risk that we choose badly and ultimately self-destruct. Hence the need to hone the skills of observation and distinction, as the Lord well knew when He first set the whole process in motion. Hence His constant enjoining of the children of Israel to observe His sacrifices and keep themselves holy in the most intimate aspects of existence; birth, death, sex and worship. No easy task, as we have repeatedly learned. But no task more necessary, as life constantly reminds us; and reminds the Lord as well.
The man condemned to death by stoning transgressed this most basic of tasks. His cardinal sin was to profane God’s name, but this was the very thing the Lord warned against when laying out His prescriptions for holiness in worship. He did this not out of vanity, but because He knew that His name was the fount from which flowed a society based upon law. This was the purpose of the exodus from Egypt, as He never tires of telling Moses and the children of Israel. This was also the cause of His fury in the incident of the molten calf. If the Israelites were quick to abandon the first commandment, how would they uphold the rest? Indeed, the blasphemy uttered by the son of Shelomit of the tribe of Dan was a replay of the national transgression at Sinai which so infuriated the Lord. And since God’s fury once unleashed knows no bounds, punishment was swift and drastic. As it was in the case of Aaron’s two sons, from which the Israelites again seemed not to have learned.
But God has learned. When He started off Creation He thought it was enough to create difference and all would be good. He put men and women whom He created in His image in the garden of Eden and left them to their happiness. But happy they would not stay, temptation got the better of them, and the one commandment the Lord had laid down for them they proved unable to obey. Things went downhill from there. By the end of parashat Bereshit God was so disappointed in His creation He was ready to destroy it. Great and merciful as He is, He relented and started again with Noah. That too did not work out so well, leading God to try His hand with only a small segment of humanity this time, that small band of Abraham’s descendants He would turn into a nation on a small strip of territory, difference within difference. And so He chose the Israelites in this His third attempt at creating a difference that would take and evolve.
Yet this time the Lord knew what He was dealing with, knew that the hearts of men were inclined to evil from the get-go because their passions led them by the nose. And so the Lord knew that He had to put the fear of God into them. Nothing short of crime would suffice to impress upon the Hebrews the seriousness of God’s choice. Ironically, the men He had created in His image now taught Him that He had to change it. Instead of the utopia of Eden He taught them capital punishment and the grounds on which it would be executed. Henceforth God would meet human beings on terrain and in language they would understand.
Every society requires a foundation. The Israelite confederacy was founded on God’s choice. That was the rock on which it rested. Its inhabitants, He knew, would get up to all sorts of tricks, but the one for which they would pay dearly would be the one that transgressed the basis on which their very existence depended. Hence the constant reminder throughout Leviticus that the Israelites are not to profane God’s holy name. If they did all hell could break loose. As it did at Sinai. As it did now and would continue to do in the wilderness. And as it would when the Israelites settled the land but made their peace with idol worshippers. Hence God’s intolerance when His name is profaned, for the rest of the covenant would soon be abandoned. Hence his readiness to impress upon the Israelites that there would be no fooling around. If crime were needed to found a society God was ready and they should be too. The men He had created in His image had taught him at least that. And to further impress them with the seriousness of His endeavor He had them participate in that crime.
All societies are founded on crime. That is the way of men when one nation separates from another to create its own way of life. It took God a while to understand that, but understand it He did. We would do well to follow His example. Certainly contemporary Israel would do well to understand this lesson when dealing with neighbors bent on its destruction. Such an assertion, let us be clear, is not a prescription for stoning. Indeed, if the judges and rabbis of the Israelite confederacies and subsequent exiles were loath to pronounce sentences of stoning or capital punishment, even of dismemberment as restitution for bodily harm, the strictures of the Torah notwithstanding, it is testimony to the peaceful settling of disputes that flowed from the covenant God established with His people. The rabbis understood, so it seemed, that however radical God’s prescriptions were when it came to founding Hebrew national existence, the purpose for doing so was to create a society in which the blinding passions of lust and revenge were tempered by the discriminating effects of legal judgment. Uncompromising when it came to establishing His covenant, the Lord well understood that its purpose was to make life more peaceful and more joyous for those who subscribed to it, even when they transgressed among themselves. As He explained in Kedoshim: thou shalt love the stranger as thyself, but the Moloch worshipper shall be put to death. And again in Emor: one law you shall have for all, for I am the Lord your God. Yet the children of Israel brought the son of Shelomit from the tribe of Dan outside the camp and stoned him to death, as He commanded.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 6, 2017
Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination, it says in Acharei Mot. And if a man lie with mankind as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them, it says in Kedoshim. But today it seems it is not an abomination, and few are those in modern society who would be ready to stone homosexuals for their sexual indulgences. How then are we to understand these strictures? How can the Torah still speak to us and all the more so if we do indulge?
One could of course point out that it is not homosexuality per se that is an abomination, but the practice of it by the idol-worshipping neighbors of ancient Israel which so put God’s nose out of joint. The interdiction against homosexuality is part of a long series of interdictions against other sexual practices which were common among Israel’s neighbors and anathema to the Lord for that very reason. Sexual relations among blood relatives, for example, would only increase the chaos of kin-structured societies to which Israel ancient and modern, as a law-based society, was and is intrinsically opposed. Indeed, the long list of injunctions against certain sexual practices, like the injunctions against the consumption of animal blood or the practice of sacrifices outside the Lord’s sanctuary, is explained and justified as an injunction to do away with the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. If Israel is to be a holy nation, the Lord explains, then it must make a radical break with all forms of idol worship, lest the land which vomited out the idol worshippers one day vomits out the Israelites as well. Strong language, one must concede, but at one with the project of ancient Israel to carve out a different society among the empires of the ancient world.
The emergence of historical difference is no easy task, and the Lord wanted the Israelites to understand that. Slipping back into the old ways was and is easy enough, and sex is the easiest and trickiest of portals by which that could occur. Sodomy is but a precursor to its being imported into the house of God, as Moses will remind the Israelites in Deuteronomy. Little wonder then that the strictures are harsh and vigilance demanded. The historical record of the Jews when it comes to backsliding is certainly eloquent enough. And of all the backsliding which the Lord feared and which the Torah thunders against, Moloch worship, or child sacrifice, is the worst and most dangerous. Not for nothing does the Lord go into details about the punishment for this offence. Whosoever, Israelite or stranger sojourning among them, that giveth his seed unto Molech shall be put to death. The people shall stone him and the Lord shall turn His face from him for defiling His sanctuary and profaning His holy name. And if the people shield such idolaters, God says, He will set His face against them as well. How could it be otherwise when the central story of the Torah itself, the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, is a literary, psychological and moral lesson against child sacrifice?
Contemporary homosexuality, it may be argued, is practised, tolerated and celebrated in societies that find child sacrifice anathema. Contemporary Israel, to name but one such society, does not strap explosives to its children and send them forth to blow themselves up in their neighbors’ streets and shopping centers. Its neighbors, on the other hand, those who would put homosexuals to death and stone female adulterers, do precisely that. And yet, most Israelis, and notably its queer population, still give the claims of the Palestinian thugs that seek Israel’s destruction legitimacy. Considering that, the Torah’s worry about homosexuality being the thin edge of the wedge is not without foundation.
And yet, and yet, that is not the whole story when it comes to understanding the words of the Torah that cannot be completely contextualized away. There is a sense in which homosexuality is an abomination, even in a law-based society that recognizes it and removes all penalties against its practice. For homosexuality as a relationship between same sex couples removes gender difference from the relationship. A man who sleeps with another man does not allow for the difference between men and women to make itself felt in the most intimate and most explosive of human encounters. But difference lies at the basis of holiness. Without the ability to make distinctions there is no holiness. That is the essence of the Havdalah prayer, where we bless the Lord for distinguishing between the holy and the profane, between the Sabbath of rest and the six days of labor, between Israel and the nations. In the frenzy of sexual passion difference is obliterated. Only in the aftermath of coitus, what the French call the little death, does difference return, even in heterosexual coupling. Hence for homosexuals the need to acknowledge, even more than their heterosexual counterparts, the danger they run, the extra little abomination that threatens to engulf them, as it threatens us all.
Holiness must be continuously re-established, and all the more so when transgression cannot be eliminated, not even by stoning. People will indulge. The claims of the body, as last week’s parasha also reminded us, are powerful indeed. Indulgence in turn requires atonement, which is nothing more than the restoration of balance, the restitution of difference. This is no easy task, not even for the High Priest, who must atone every year for the inevitable transgressions of the people of Israel. The beginning of Acharei Mot makes this amply clear. And so God repeats over and over for our consideration and observance, yea even to men who sleep with men: And ye shall be holy unto Me; for I the Lord am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that ye should be Mine.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 29, 2017
Spinoza, that most profound and Jewish of thinkers, argued that the body is the first idea of the mind. In this week’s double parasha the Torah would agree, tasking the priest with the work of healing the body as much as the soul.
Of the many possible indications that the body is in trouble, the signs of some change in the skin are the most dangerous, for they may be a precursor of leprosy, an illness in the time of the Torah akin to melanoma today. Indeed, the injunctions given to the priest to examine any change in the skin – a rising, a scab, a bright spot – are testimony to the seriousness with which the disease was taken. Leprosy is now, for the most part, fortunately a thing of the past, but the details of Tazria and Metzora call to mind the reactions to changes we notice in our skin even today. We see something new, we go to the doctor, he or she tells us if it is something to worry about or not. If it is, he or she has it checked out. Biopsies may be in order. In the meantime, we worry. If the report is positive we are relieved and give thanks. If the report is negative, we move on to treatment and pray for the best.
Not much different from what the priest must do. He must examine the skin to determine whether it is leprosy or not. Sometimes the diagnosis is not clear. In that case, the priest shuts up the stricken person for seven days and examines him or her again. Depending on what he then finds, the person is declared clean of the plague or not. In the latter case, another seven days’ waiting period may be required before a proper judgment can be made. What is striking is the detail into which the Torah goes, turning these parchment pages into no less than a medical manual for the priest turned doctor. Little wonder that the medical profession has long and early attracted Jews to its ranks.
It is not only the skin that is examined, but also the garments the stricken person has worn. And when the Israelites come into the land and settle it and build houses therein, the priest must also enter the houses of people stricken with leprosy and examine them for traces of the disease. For it may be that some of the walls may have to be taken down and re-plastered, much as we deal with mould today when it is discovered in our homes.
In all instances, great care is taken to prevent the leprosy from spreading. Hence the need for quarantine as a precaution in all such instances. But quarantine raises the question of public attitudes, and it is interesting in that respect to compare the Torah with contemporary discussions of this issue. This comparison becomes all the more interesting given that the discussion of leprosy is sandwiched between discussions of birth, bodily issues, menstruation and seminal emissions, and involves questions of cleanliness, whose religious dimensions cannot be ignored.
For the Torah, quarantine is a matter of public health. It carries no shame. The leper is even enjoined to cover his lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” to ward off contact and prevent the spread of the disease. Shutting infected persons up for a period of time, separating them from the healthy body of the community, is not considered shunning, merely good public health practice. This does not mean the Torah does not see the moral dimensions of the question; only that it takes them up in the appropriate place.
The plague is not a metaphor for morality. It is not a visitation of God’s wrath. Being unclean is not a moral condemnation but simply being stricken with an illness for which there are procedures and remedies. Being clean, on the other hand, is a matter for rejoicing and giving thanks. So it is that when a leper is recovered he or she is to bring sacrifices to the priest, who will carry them out in detail as complex as the medical treatment itself. Among the sacrifices are the sin-offering and the guilt-offering, because the priest, it is said, shall make atonement for him that is to be cleansed before the Lord.
Why atonement, it may be asked? Why atonement if there is no sin in being sick, and even less sin in giving birth? And following in that vein, why does giving birth make a woman unclean and equally why does menstruation make her so? And why does a man who has sexual relations with a woman during her period become unclean as well? Why does a man who has a seminal issue become unclean too? Why and why indeed? Understandably when a man or woman bleeds for no reason or longer than usual, or has a bodily issue that is out of the ordinary, alarm bells go off. But why should even the normal workings of the body, even those related to sexual pleasure and conception, evoke concerns of uncleanliness and require sacrifice and atonement for the persons involved to return to normal life?
Perhaps because there is as much to atone for in life as there is to celebrate. The body is a miracle that works. But the body can also fail. Every moment the body breathes we run the risk of catastrophe. Conception can bring loss. Menstruation signals the absence of conception. Coitus brings pleasure, but sex is always risky. Even modern times have not done away with that. HIV. Emotional loss and pain. And so, after every encounter we atone for having evaded whatever could have gone wrong. We atone, strangely enough, for being alive, for being able to risk again, as we certainly will not fail to do.
We atone, in short, for having been spared the inevitable pain the body brings, this body so vulnerable to the passions because of its powerful hold on the mind whose first idea it remains. And so we pause, go to the space where we mark the difference between sickness and health, between subordination to our passions and understanding them, between the body on the loose and the body enraptured by the soul. That is the space of God’s sanctuary, the space of our holiness. And it too requires laws to safeguard it.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 22, 2017
The parasha starts off well, but quickly turns south. On the eighth day following Aaron’s consecration Moses calls Aaron and his sons and tells them to make a sin-offering and a burnt offering to the Lord, and to have the children of Israel bring a sin offering and a burnt offering and peace offerings and a meal offering to the Lord in their honor. Once the animals were brought to the tent of meeting, Moses instructed Aaron to present the offerings to the Lord as he had been commanded to do.
So Aaron did, drawing near to the altar, slaughtering the animals, dashing the blood against the altar and smoking the appropriate pieces upon it, and this for all the different offerings. And after he had waved the breasts and the right thigh of the peace offerings before the Lord, Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them, whereupon the glory of the Lord appeared unto the whole congregation. But what does this mean exactly? one may understandably ask. Does the answer lie in the sentence that follows: And the fire came forth from the Lord and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat, at which point the people shouted and fell on their faces?
What we do know is that immediately after this the Torah tells us the strange story of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who took their censers and offered a strange fire to the Lord, one which He had not commanded them to do. As a result, a fire came forth from the Lord and devoured them. But Aaron was forbidden to mourn for them, lest God’s wrath be kindled against the entire congregation. Instead, Moses told him, let the whole house of Israel mourn your sons for you; you, on the other hand, must not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, for the anointing oil of the Lord is still upon you.
So Aaron did once again. At which point the Lord spoke directly to Aaron saying neither he nor his sons were to drink wine or liquor when going into the tent of meeting. Such is the rule for all high priests forever. That ye die not, said God, and that ye may put difference between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which God has given them through Moses.
Appropriately enough, when God next spoke to Moses He taught him the laws of kashrut, what animals may be eaten and not eaten and also what creatures living in the water may be eaten and not; which birds are kosher and which are not, and so for the rodent and insect world as well. Furthermore, not only are non-kosher creatures forbidden to be consumed; they even render unclean a person who has come into contact with them when dead. They can contaminate cooking vessels as well. Swarming things especially are designated as detestable, having in their power to defile any Israelite who eats them. Ye shall not make yourselves detestable with them, God tells Moses, nor shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, lest you be defiled. For I am the Lord your God, He reminds Moses and through him the children of Israel, Who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; therefore you shall be holy, for I am holy.
This, then, is the glory of the Lord, Who brought difference into the world and sought to reproduce that difference in the way the world is organized. It did not work out very well at first. Men built a tower of Babel in their attempt to blot out the difference between God and men created in His image. The Lord had to scatter them over the face of the earth to prevent it, just as He had to bring a flood to counter the evil that had wrecked His Creation. Now here He was starting over with the people of Israel, hoping to create a law-based society that would enable the holiness of difference to find a proper home in the universe. But difference can only take hold when it is inscribed and cherished in the patterns of daily life. Hence the strictures about sacrifice and the punctilious manner in which they must be obeyed. Only then does the glory of the Lord appear to men; only then can they see it and appreciate it.
The severity of the punishment meted out to Aaron’s two sons, the interdiction placed upon Aaron to mourn for them, both justified by the overriding need to keep the distinction between the holy and the profane, only underscore how difficult this task is. The temptation is always to sink back into indifference, to the primal tohu and bohu, and so to death. Indifference comes in so many ways and garbs: as intolerance, as the will to power, as overweening pride, as the vainglorious dreams of a perfect world, more perfect even than the one God created. And so indifference must be resisted and combated. What better way to remind people of this task and what better way to accomplish it than to inscribe difference and respect for difference in the daily work of living? You are what you eat, the saying goes. You are how you worship, the saying can also go. You are how you value others, the stranger among you, the different one, the convert, as the stories of the Hebrew Bible stress over and over, from the Passover exodus to the return of Ruth.
From the laws of kashrut to the celebration of diversity so prized by modern society there is a clear and discernible line. And from the terrible story of Aaron’s two sons who transgressed the laws of holiness comes a lesson for those who would allow the virtues of modernity to be trampled on by the unclean and the fanatics who ask us to tolerate the intolerable. Once again the Torah teaches us the hard lessons of history. Once again we would do well to pay attention.
Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 8, 2017
More on sacrifices, though now the words of the Lord unto Moses have to do with the manner in which the priests shall offer the sacrifices and the rules governing who gets what, which part goes to the priest who offered the sacrifice and which part goes to all of them. Again we see how one chapter becomes a commentary on the preceding one, elaborating rules and procedures and thereby preparing the groundwork for judicial interpretation, here as elsewhere.
The fire for the altar on which the burnt offering shall be laid shall be kept going constantly. To remove the ashes from the consumed sacrifice the priest shall put on his linen garments; but when carrying the ashes out of the camp he shall change and put on other garments. For there is no holiness without lines of demarcation.
And the meal offering of the priest is not the same as that of ordinary Israelites. It shall be wholly made to smoke and not be eaten. But the sin-offering of the priest shall be eaten in the holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whoever touches it shall be holy, but if the blood thereof is sprinkled on any garment, that garment must be washed in a holy place. But the earthen vessel in which it is washed shall be broken; and if the vessel is brazen and not earthen, then it must be scoured and rinsed in water. No sin offering of which any blood is brough