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Wow! We are about to complete the yearly cycle of reading the entire Five Books of Moses, The Torah, with only 2 more parshiot (portions) until we get to the very end of the scroll. But between now and the very last verses of the Torah, there are a bunch of holidays — Rosh HaShanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of At-One-Ment or Atonement), and the festival of Sukkot (the Harvest Days celebrated in temporary huts called “sukkot“). So how does the Torah reading this Shabbat illuminate the days of awe, shortly upon us?
As if to signal we are close to the end of the reading cycle, this week we read two parshiot called “Nitzavim” (Standing) and “Vayelekh” (And He Went Out). Let’s begin with Nitzavim by looking at the G-dcast video:
The storyteller focuses on the speech Moshe/Moses gives to the Children of Israel on the last day of his life, and on the deals they are offered — what will happen to them (the curses that we read about last week, and this week in abbreviated form) if they don’t obey the mitzvot (commandments), and what they will get (the blessings) if they do manage to stay true to the commandments. It’s a very short parasha (portion), which is probably why it is so easily paired with the following one (Vayelekh).
However, even though it is short, it has several of my favorite passages in all of Torah. One comes at the opening of the parasha, and here is the most powerful excerpt:
Here is why these verses resonate so strongly:
Another passage that has entered my heart and consciousness is from chapter 30 verses 11-14:
How completely affirming this statement is — that nothing that God commands is too hard for you; it isn’t impossible — you can do it.
And finally, a few verses later, verse 19:
What speaks to me so powerfully here?
The second parasha we read is Vayelekh (“And He Went”); it begins in , Deuteronomy 31:2, by letting us hear Moshe speaking very personally: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active…”
Mayim Bialik focuses on what is commonly known as the 613th commandment, which is an interpretation of verse 19 of chapter 31, that each Israelite is to put the “poem” which is Torah into his or her own mouth. She asks what it means for each of us to write a Torah, or even more significantly, what it means to “be a Torah.” While this absolutely deserves considerable attention, I would like to take a quick look instead at the verses about how Moshe is asked to prepare for his death. In verse 14 he is told by God: “…the time is drawing near for you to die.” You can read more about how Moshes gets ready to die.
Moshe’s demise is both heartbreaking and instructive. This is the very time of year, when summer days wane and bleed into fall, as the liturgy of the High Holy Days reminds us, that our lives are finite, our days are numbered. Facing our own mortality naturally brings fear and trepidation, kind of like what the Israelites might have felt about crossing over the Jordan without their leader. We can read these lines metaphorically: one day we will “cross over” a river (the river of life) into a land unknown. And what does God tell us? “…God will be with you, God will not fail you nor forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed” (chapter 31 verse 8). Does this remind you of a song by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav?
Last week, we were “going out” (“Ki Tetzei“) and this week, we are “coming in.” In the first words of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo (“When You come In [to the land of Israel]”), we find Moses/Moshe continuing his long valedictory address to the people. He wants to cover all bases, since he isn’t coming into the land with them. This is also the parasha that, according to Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “contains some of the highest highs and lowest lows in the entire Torah — or in any other work of literature, for that matter”.
And to what is Prof. Eisen specifically referring? To the litany of blessings and curses found in Ki Tavo. Here Moshe spells out exactly how the Israelites will be blessed if they follow the commandments, as well as the many horrific curses falling on them if they fail to obey God’s laws.
Our G-dcast storytellers this week understand these blessings and curses as basic building blocks of a committed, long term, mutual relationship. They liken the relationship between God and the People of Israel to a marriage between a husband and a wife, who promise many things to each other as they enter their covenantal relationship. In fact, they point out, the relationship between God and Israel is called a brit — a covenant, a mutually binding agreement.
Understanding the blessings and the curses in this way is certainly one way to look at our parasha.
The parasha begins with a very special ceremony in which each male Israelite is commanded to bring some of every first fruit of his harvest to the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem, in the springtime of the year, and give it to the priest while reciting a formulaic acknowledgment concerning his ability to harvest abundantly in the land promised to him by God. In Deuteronomy chapter 26, beginning with verse 5 and continuing for several verses, the Israelite is told to narrate his history, starting with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
Does this phrase sound familiar to you? It certainly might, because the rabbis of the Talmudic times chose these very same verses to include in our Passover Haggadah. It is a central part of the Magid (Telling) section of the Haggadah, the story narrative; in just a few verses, we sum up our relationship to God, the Land, and the bounty of the fruits and richness of the soil with which we have been blessed. We say these words every year around the Passover seder table, as we remember our deliverance from bondage to freedom, from being slaves to being free people. Strange, isn’t it, that we are actually reciting the same script that Moshe tells the Israelites to say when they make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem over 2000 years ago?
By the end of chapter 27, we are in the dark land of the curses, which really fill us with dread; they are so shockingly terrible that sometimes the person reading from that section of the Torah chants them in a whisper rather than aloud.
Here I would like to return to Prof. Eisen’s commentary on Ki Tavo. If you have been reading my Torah blogs, you may remember that several weeks ago I mentioned the frightening phenomena of the honeybee colony collapse. I found a persuasive connection between what the Torah has to say about how we conduct our agricultural responsibilities, and the blessings of the land in bearing fruit and giving us everything we need. When we abuse the land, we are told that it will not bring forth food or sustenance.
In this week’s parasha we are confronted and even shocked with horrific curses. Prof. Eisen uses this as an opportunity to alert us to the result of failing in our roles as stewards of our planet. It is as if the devastating curses are already almost upon us. This year, he reads:
We are entering the last few weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the new year of 5774. I’m thinking that while it may not be up to each of us as individuals to know the answers to this greatest challenge to humankind, it is up to each of us to answer these questions as they pertain to us personally:
We all like to think about changes as one year ends and a new one begins. For me, there is nothing more important than thinking, talking with friends and family, and deciding on one behavior change to help avert the curses and allow us to lead lives of blessing.
As the storyteller (and others) point out, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei (“When You Go Out”), has more commandments (mitzvot) than any other parasha in the entire Five Books of Moses. We are smack dab in the middle of the book of D’varim (Deuteronomy), the last discourse of Moshe/Moses as he prepares the Children of Israel to cross over into the Promised Land, without him. As we have mentioned in other posts, Deuteronomy is substantively different from the other four books of the Torah, using different language, and serving as a review of the history that began way back at the beginning of the book of Sh’mot (Exodus). So, what are these 70 mitzvot, and what is a mitzvah anyway?
The mitzvot here are all over the map. However, we might notice that these laws seem to have to do with personal behavior and personal agency rather than being mitzvot directed towards public officials (judges, priests, prophets, and kings). They are also not commandments directed towards the nation as a whole, but towards each individual.
In common American Jewish parlance, sometimes mitzvah is translated as “good deed.” The actual derivation of the word comes from the root “command” and implies that in order for something to be a mitzvah, it needs to come from an authority doing the commanding. It is almost like saying that without a commander, a mitzvah doesn’t exist.
There are many mitzvot presented this week, many of which bear looking at in some depth, such as Deuteronomy 21:10-14. How is taking captive a beautiful woman relevant to us today in 21st century America? Why would we take this mitzvah seriously? Maybe a hint about these laws comes from chapter 21, verses 15 and 16. Nowadays, a man may not have two wives simultaneously, but he might very well have two wives serially (because of death or divorce) and may have children from his marriage with each wife. How is his property to be passed on? The Torah insists that he be scrupulous about not playing favorites and giving the majority of his wealth to the son of the beloved wife, and must follow the laws of primogeniture — the first born son, even of the “hated” wife, must inherit the double portion.
Within just a few verses, we get laws relating to family life and choices: whom to marry, which son gets to inherit, etc. Maybe these mitzvot are linked by addressing the small, everyday issues that arise, the kinds of challenges each of us face if we live with others, which means most of us. How to be fair to enemies, how to react when you find something valuable that doesn’t belong to you, how to treat your animals with compassion, what building codes are needed in order to avoid accidental deaths, etc.
But, interspersed with these ethical mitzvot are also a bunch of mitzvot that make no sense. Traditional Torah commentators like to derive lessons from the way verses are juxtaposed; they figure that the editors are trying to teach us something from the proximity of the various mitzvot, the ones that make sense and the inscrutable ones.
For example, let’s take a closer look at chapter 22, verses 9-12:
Four verses and only one makes obvious sense — the others seem capricious. So we need to ask ourselves: can we learn something about the opaque verses from the verse that instructs us to have compassion on the smaller and weaker of the two animals harnessed to the plow?
The G-dcast storyteller spends considerable time on the mitzvah described in chapter 22 verses 6-7: how one must handle a mother bird and her eggs in a nest. We are enjoined to send the mother bird away, and only then to take the eggs, allowing the mother to continue to produce eggs in the future. And if you observe this commandment, “you will fare well and have a long life.” The link between sending away the mother bird and having a long life is nicely unpacked in the G-dcast video. This is precisely the way we are supposed to read these laws. How does the link between two disparate parts work? Sending away mother bird and meriting long lifeâ€¦what is the connection?
At the very end of the parasha we are reminded of our mortal enemy, the nation of Amalek, said to be somehow connected to every evil despot who tried to kill the Jewish people throughout history (from Haman to Hitler). Look at the very last words of the parasha, “blot out the memory of Amalekâ€¦do not forget” (Chapter 25, verses 17-19). OK, I think I understand what it means to “blot out the memory.” Doesn’t it mean to forget? To delete, obliterate, erase, remove? If so, then what do you make of the last phrase, “do not forget!”
Lots to puzzle over in this week’s parasha with 70 different mitzvot. Here’s something to try: make a list of all of the mitzvot that make sense to you, and a second list of all of the ones that don’t, and then see if you can find any links between the two sets.
To think about as you read:
“Re’eh” — “See”! The Torah portion this week opens with this command by the God of Israel to “see” — see the blessing and the curse that are set before them (Deuteronomy 11:26-27). Last week, the text commanded the Israelites to “Hear” — “Sh’ma“! This week continues last week’s long valedictory discourse, the going-away speech, the very last words of advice that Moshe/Moses wants to transmit as his flock is poised at the River Jordan, about to cross over into the Promised Land, knowing that he will neither guide nor accompany them any longer.
And what does he say in this one pithy little statement? “See what is before you” — both the category he calls blessing and the category he calls curse. Even if we ignored the rest of the verses in this parasha filled with laws that some Jews follow to this day, we could have a pretty significant conversation about what it means to see blessings and curses in one’s life.
First, an overview:
The storyteller sings a ditty that reviews the parts of this parasha highlighting blessings and curses, and telling us that there will be a helping hand to guide the Israelites in their sojourn in Canaan, despite temptations in their paths. What is not covered in the song are some of the laws that were picked up by the rabbis of the Talmud, and turned over and over to give us systems observed by some Jews several thousand years later — for example, some of the dietary laws of kashrut, telling us what is OK and what is forbidden to eat (Deuteronomy 14:3-21).
You may remember hearing this once before: in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 11 is the first time we encounter these strictures; and then here in Deuteronomy, we are getting all of the laws again, for the second time, sometimes changed a bit, through Moshe’s discourse. If you want to refresh your memory and enjoy another great little song, visit the blog post from that week back in April.
Also in our parasha this week are the laws of tithing (chapter 14:22-27) and laws concerning loaning money (chapter 15:1-11), among others, that all gave the Talmudic rabbis plenty of grist for their mills and provide the basis for Jewish observance today. We also read some laws describing sacrifices, slavery, and punishment by stoning, that were jettisoned after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.
Which makes this verse so interesting:
Wow!! Really? We are told right here in the Torah, explicitly by Moshe, not to change the laws at all by adding to, or subtracting from, them. But how can that be? We don’t observe the laws as stated — so in essence, it looks like we are subtracting; while in some cases (praying in a synagogue instead of slaughtering sacrifices on an altar), it looks like we have added to the laws.
A traditional interpretation of this one powerful verse holds that the entire Torah is called the “Written Torah” (the “Torah Sh’bihktav“), which must have been accompanied by another set of laws and interpretations thereof called the “Oral Torah” (the “Torah Sh’ba’al Peh“), the oral tradition that came to Moshe directly from God at Sinai, which provides the details needed in order to observe the laws even after the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from their beloved land. The famous statement in the Mishna (the foundational layer of the Talmud) in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) on the formation of the Oral Torah illustrates this point:
Now, let’s wind our way back to the idea of blessings and curses that Moshe says will accompany the Children of Israel as they enter and dwell in their own land. He makes sure to tell them that they will be blessed as long as they obey God’s commandments, and cursed if they do not obey.
Last week I suggested looking at the word “land” metaphorically, to substitute the word “earth” for “land.” This week, I want to repeat the idea of reading metaphorically: I suggest that we read the phrase “obey the commandments of the Lord your God” as “perceive clearly and do the right things.” Then, the opening verses of the parasha might read as follows:
The name of this week’s parasha, Ekev, is kind of a hard word to translate precisely into English. Here are 3 renditions of the first phrase (Deuteronomy 7 verse 12):
Ekev shares its root with the word for heel, ahkev. If we remember that Moshe/Moses is giving his culminating speech to the Children of Israel as they are poised on the border of the Promised Land, right before crossing over into the Land of Israel, he seems to be hammering home this point: “OK you guys, on the heels of all of the commandments God gave you is this crucial point: You must obey / heed / listen to these laws! And if you don’t do them, there will be major trouble, which I will now go on to describe.”
And as if a simple reminder wasn’t enough, Moshe takes the opportunity to recount things that surely the descendants of the Israelites who left Egypt must already know. Think about it: what stories were the parents and grandparents telling their offspring during all those long 40 years of wandering about in the desert? As far as we know, there were no Golden Books, no Goodnight Moon, and certainly no tablets with entertaining illustrated stories for the young set. It’s not hard to imagine that the older generation related the miracles of being brought into freedom from the bondage of Egypt, and the promise that they were going to live in a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where they would lack nothing (Deuteronomy 8: 7-10). It sounds like a fantasy or dream… certainly a rosy enough picture to pacify the kids when they complained about having to pull up stakes from one campsite to travel to another.
The G-dcast storyteller this week spends some time with the phrase in chapter 10 verse 16, about circumcising or cutting away the thickening around our hearts. The storyteller believes that when we cut away this thickening, we will become vulnerable and open; this is a good thing for our relationships with God and with others. You might want to look at this paragraph from the Curveball Health Coaching blog, on being vulnerable:
Part of Moshe’s valedictory speech was adopted by the rabbis of the Talmud when they began to construct the written siddur (prayerbook). The second paragraph of the Shema, recited twice daily, comes right from this parasha, chapter 11 verses 13-22. Here Moshe transmits to the people what God tells him about the consequences of not obeying the laws and commandments.
I suggest that we take a second look at the language, noticing that the commandments are inextricably tied to the way the earth will continue to produce its plenty. We are told that if we observe the commandments, “the rain will fall in its season, and there will be plenty of grain and wine and oil.” And if we don’t… well then, we will experience the dire consequences of no rain and no produce, and we will perish from “the good land” that God has given us. Moshe goes on and presses home the point: tell your children about all of this, keep talking about it, be vigilant about passing on these commandments lest they be forgotten.
Stepping back for a moment and looking at this passage using a wider lens, it seems to me (and many others before me) that we could read this passage metaphorically. Instead of reading it as if God will be angry or threatening and will demand only strict adherence to a set of biblical laws, we might read this passage as descriptive of what is actually happening with the degradation of the planet. That is, try to read the word “land” as “earth.” And read the words “loving the Lord your God and serving Him” as “loving the rules of nature that provide balance, seasons, and the capacity to nourish all” and read the words “for the Lord’s anger will flare up against you and He will shut up the skies so there will be no rain” as “the forces of nature will react, and we will encounter devastating droughts, famines, and climate [climactic refers to climax, not climate] catastrophes.”
Seen this way, the words resonate differently. That is, the consequences of what we do, and also what we ignore, may be damages of biblically disastrous magnitude. The earth itself will react to our not heeding the commandments of stewardship with all our hearts and with all our souls.
I recently spoke to a cousin, an enlightened and intelligent farmer, who shared her beliefs about the decimation of the bee population. According to her, bees use electromagnetic fields to navigate their flights from and back to their hives. With the proliferation of cell phones and towers, the electromagnetic fields are compromised and many bees never make it home. And without bees to pollinate, we are doomed — the good land that the Lord gave to all of us will no longer yield its produce and we will soon perish.
What do you think? Are we obeying the commandments and therefore enjoying the blessings of living on the good land/earth that the Lord has provided us, or are we headed down a path of curses? What are the consequences of the ways we have used technology (including pesticides, etc.) in the way we conduct our agricultural lives?
The parasha this week, Va’etchanan (“And He Pleaded”), refers to how Moshe/Moses pleaded with God to cross over into the Promised Land, along with the People of Israel.
Interesting how when we look back on incidents in our lives, and we re-tell the story of what happened, some of the more difficult facts have a way of morphing into something other than what actually happened. Has this ever happened to you? Something happened one way but you tell the story in another way, without even meaning to hide the truth — it just changes in your memory.
You may remember, back in parashat Cukkat, when we talked about God’s extreme displeasure with the way Moshe (and his brother Aaron) handled the crisis in Meribah — when they were supposed to produce water from the rock (Numbers 20:6-12). Now, in this week’s parasha, Moshe revisits that incident, actually blaming the people and their incessant complaining as the reason he is not allowed to enter the Land. Deuteronomy 3:26:
The storytellers this week pick up on the incident with the rock at Meribah, and conclude that Moshe is punished because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Just as Moshe himself concludes that his punishment should be attributed to the behavior of the people, there are scores of commentators through the ages who have come up with other reasons. Dr. Jacob Milgrom, of blessed memory, writes an essay in The JPS Torah Commentary â€“ Numbers (pates 448-456), discussing this complex problem in some detail. Known as Excursus 50, Dr. Milgrom orders 10 major interpretations given over the centuries for why Moses is punished into three categories: Moses strikes the rock rather than speaking to it; he exhibits character traits in doing so that are unworthy of his office; the nature of the words that he uttered is unbecoming. While the full essay is not available online, I have summarized it here.
Our storytellers choose one reason; it seems that Moshe has another; and the late biblical scholar, Professor Milgrom, concludes yet another.
What does this teach us? Are some reasons or interpretations wrong while another one is right? I don’t think so. I think we are meant to learn that the Torah is multi-faceted (as Ben Bag-Bag says in the Talmud, Avot 5:22: “turn it and turn it, for all things are in it”) and that different interpretations of what happened, in different historical periods, will better shape our understanding of what actually transpired.
This parasha also has several outstanding passages that have entered Jewish life on a daily basis, and have entered both the Jewish and Christians traditions in a major way.
The storytellers suggest that Moshe is pleading for his life, to be spared a death on the across from the eastern border of the Land of Milk and Honey. Indeed, a metaphor for dying found in African-American spiritual songs is “crossing over the river to the other side.” The expression “crossed over” is linked with Moshe in the novel Moses Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston, the Aftrican-American anthropologist and novelist, published in 1939. In one paragraph, the sentence “he had crossed over” appears 12 times in a lyrical description of Moshe at a key moment in his life — during his transformation from Prince of Egypt to shepherd of the nascent Israelite nation.
The answer Moshe receives from God concerning his entering the Land of Israel is plain and simple: no, you may look but you will not enter…it is now time for new leadership to take over. Of course we then get to read another approximately 30 chapters of Moshe’s final speech, but at least we now know how these Five Books will end — with the death of our most beloved, most human, and most cherished prophet. When we get to chapter 34 of Deuteronomy we will talk about his death in more detail.
For now, if you are looking for summer reading, you might want to pick up a copy of Moses Man of the Mountain, to enjoy how “our” story was tweaked to fit the narrative of the African slaves brought to the New World in bondage. To whet your appetite, here are a few lines from the author’s introduction:
One more tidbit: this book was published the same year that Freud’s Moses and Monotheism was published, and the year that concepts of race began to define Jews in Nazi Germany.
This week we begin the 5th of the Five Books of Moses: Devarim, which literally translates to “The Words” even though we usually hear “Deuteronomy” as the English (Greek! more on this later below) name. Some like to say, “These Are The Words,” because the entire book amounts to a very long exhortation by Moshe/Moses to the Children of Israel as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, the Land of Israel.
The first thing that is odd about Devarim is the very fact that Moshe, at the end of his long life, has become an orator. Remember back in Sh’mot/Exodus, chapter 4 verse 10, when he tells God “Please Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In other words, Moshe begs God not to make him the leader of the Israelites, since he feels himself to be handicapped when it comes to making speeches. How things have changed in the 40 years of wandering in the desert! What do you think… does Moshe still have his same speech defect, or did something essential about him change? What happened to enable him to speak the words that make up the book of Devarim?
In English, this book is called Deuteronomy, based on the Greek word “Deuteronomion,” meaning “second law.” This name is likely because the book repeats many of the laws already given in Exodus chapters 19-23.
However, 70 of the approximately 100 laws found in Devarim appear only here. In fact, it is sometimes enlightening to compare the version in Deuteronomy with the original version in Exodus…. For example, how are the Ten Commandments different in each book? It is commonly accepted among bible scholars that Devarim was written several centuries after the other 4 books comprising the Torah, likely in the 7th century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah, and that the discovery of “a scroll of the Teaching,” mentioned in Kings 2 chapter 22:8, is none other than the book we are now beginning to read in synagogues.
There are lots of ways this book differs from the previous four:
An excellent one-page overview of the Book of Deuteronomy, written by Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay, can be found in the Etz Hayim chumash (Torah and commentary), published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1999. Dr. Tigay writes:
An excerpt of Dr. Tigay’s essay can be viewed on MyJewishLearning.com.
Our G-dcast narrator points out that a journey that might have taken just 11 days took 40 years! And as we begin reading, we notice that Moshe is recalling a bunch of places and people met along the way. The entire book of Devarim is divided into three discourses by Moshe, plus a few narratives, including the very last story, which we will get to in about 3 months — the story of Moshe’s death.
This week, we begin with the first discourse, in which our leader is intent on doing a major review…. It seems he really wants to ensure that they know what has happened during the 40 years of desert wandering, even if some of those to whom he is speaking didn’t experience the episodes first hand — maybe they were born in the desert and had no knowledge of what their parents went through.
So teacher Moshe is giving geography lessons, history lessons (which kings and which people we fought during those desert years), and a lot of “remember this, remember when?” What’s so important about having to remind the Israelites of every single one of these encounters with foreign nations? And how do you think this links up to Moshe telling the people Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to assign to them and their heirs after them (chapter 1 verse 8)?
One last note: from sundown on Monday, July 15 ’til darkness on Tuesday, July 16, there is a holiday commemorating the Jewish national day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, the 9th of [the month of] Av. It is a solemn fast day, a day to remember many of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, beginning with the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash/the Temple in the year 586 BCE. In this week’s parasha, in chapter 1 verse 12, we have one little word that gives a hint that Tisha B’Av (during which the Book of Lamentations is read) is around the corner. That little word is “eicha,” which means “how.” Moshe asks, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” This echoes the first word in the Book of Lamentations, where the opening verse is, “How does the city sit so lonely, she that was once great among nations!” It is a plaintive cry, and, in fact, the parallel word in this week’s parasha is chanted with the same sad melody as the Book of Lamentations.
Lots to think about, lots to ponder, as we enter Shabbat, and then the sad day of mourning on the Ninth of Av.
As you read about and watch this week’s Torah portion, some ideas to consider:
If you can remember all the way back to last week, we ended the parasha about the talking donkey (Balak) with the story of a zealot priest by the name of Pinchas who stabs to death Cozbi, the Midianite princess, and Zimri, the Israelite son of a chief in the Tribe of Simeon, while they are having sex. Pretty salacious and graphic — and an insight into the personality of Pinchas.
This week’s parasha is actually named after that very same priest, Pinchas, about whom we will say more later. For now, though, we concentrate on one of the most promising and up-beat stories of the entire Torah: the story of the five daughters of a man named Zelophechad.
Zelophechad: hard to pronounce but important to remember because of the way he might have inspired his daughters to speak truth to power. In English, you might pronounce his name Z’LOFF-HOD, the way the storyteller does in the G-dcast episode. In Hebrew, we pronounce it with a twist at the beginning, TZ’LOAF-CHOD (with a guttural ch sound for the final syllable).
The storyteller rightly zeroes in on the story of the perfectly articulated case of the five women, Mahlah, Noah, Hohglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah, the unwed daughters of Zelophechad, from the Tribe of Manasseh. The women state that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s portion of land after his death, just as would be the case if they had brothers — if Zelophechad had sons. But he didn’t, and so they come forward to Moshe/Moses to point out the inequity of this situation.
Now, here is the astounding part: Moshe presumably doesn’t know how to answer them because he brings their case forward to God. God replies,
and continues to amend the laws that had been previously understood concerning who may inherit land so that the tribe continues to hold onto its territory (Numbers 27: 7-9). Later, in chapter 36, we get an amendment to this law, which the storyteller points out.
This is a giant step forward for the women of the day (biblical times) and an essential message to all of us today. Namely, when something seems out of joint and plainly unfair, one must step forward to make the case for equality. Is it just coincidence that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down this week by the Supreme Court? Hopefully, Mahlah, Noah, Hoghlah, Milkah, and Tirtzah will continue to motivate and even encourage us to bring forth arguments for equal treatment before the law to the legal authorities who have the power to change the status quo for the better.
Immediately after settling the issue of daughters being able to inherit, God tells his servant Moshe to ascend to the top of Mt. Abarim and look over the whole land that is promised to the Israelites. He is then told that he will not be allowed to enter the Land (Numbers 27: 13-14). Is Moshe shocked? He doesn’t seem to be. God gives him the reason (again, verse 14) and maybe, just maybe, Moshe realizes that his sin was sufficiently grievous, such that he merits this harsh sentence. Also, maybe Moshe understands that he is of the old generation and no longer an optimal leader.
Out of his love for the people he has shepherded all these years he asks God to appoint a successor (“so that the Lord’s community will not be like a flock without a shepherd”). God instructs him to take Joshua/Yehoshua, the son of Nun, and stand with him in front of Eleazar, the priest, in full view of the people and lay his hands upon the new leader, investing in him the power and the wisdom to lead the people into their Promised Land.
I think you might be wondering about the sin that Moshe merits. The hint comes when God says that Moshe and Aaron “rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zinâ€¦to SANCTIFY Me through the water” in front of the complaining masses of thirsty Israelites. God’s instruction at the time was for the two brothers to speak to the rock, making it crystal clear that it was the same God who redeemed the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt who is now slacking their thirst, bringing forth water from the rock, again saving them. Instead, Moshe and Aaron said to the Israelites, “shall we bring forth water for you?” implying that it is they who are the saviors of the people, rather than God. God knows that this people have little faith and need to be reminded of God’s miracles all the time — God needs to be sanctified and made holy at every opportunity. And in this Moshe and Aaron failed big time, and thus their punishment not to enter the Promised Land.
I said I would return to the character of Pinchas, who is a complicated figure because of his zealotry. As Moshe imagines who will lead the people after his death, one might imagine that Moshe would think that Pinchas would be the logical successor. After all, Pinchas is from the priestly clan, and has already shown himself to take leadership (when he killed Cozbi and Zimri to avert the decimation of the entire Israelite nation). In last week’s parasha, Numbers 25: 11-12, Pinchas is even granted a covenant of peace, a “brit shalom.” Butâ€¦ one letter of that word, shalom, the letter vov (which looks like a straight line and gives that “o” sound), is calligraphied with a break in its middle. Kind of a visual hint or reminder that true peace cannot come from zealotry. And true leaders cannot be hotheads, who take a spear in their anger, and aim to kill.
Maybe all of this runs through the mind of our leader Moshe, when he hears God tell him that the new leader will be Joshua. God may have awarded Pinchas a brit shalom, a pact of peace, but, maybe it’s not what it seems. To explore this idea, here’s another fascinating read by Shamai Leibowitz, in his blog, Pursuing Justice.
The Torah parasha this week is named after a non-Israelite king, Balak, who decides that the Israelite tribes are a threat to his people, the Moabites. So King Balak hires Balaam ben Be’or, a soothsayer and prophet, to go and deliver a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22: 5-7). Balaam accepts the gig; he and his talking donkey become two of the most comical or mysterious characters in the whole Torah. The G-dcast storyteller this week, Rabbi Andrew Shapiro Katz, formerly of San Francisco and now residing with his wife and growing family in Be’er Sheva, Israel, has given us a shorter-than-usual and very provocative commentary on this parasha.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? That the only way to “explain” a talking donkey is to imagine that Balaam projects a piece of himself, some intuition coming from his “gut,” right into the mouth of his donkey. It gets even better… Balaam ends up having a conversation with his donkey, almost the way you sometimes get two parts of yourself arguing with each other (on the one hand….but on the other hand…). There is also some medical evidence that the very same cells that formed our brains when we were in our embryonic and then fetal state also formed the organs associated with our gut, such as our intestines. For more on brain gut, you can read this.
The donkey stops because he sees God’s messenger in the path in front of him, forbidding him to continue onward. And Balaam just beats him for that — witness their absurd interaction in chapter 22 verses 28-30. When Balaam himself finally hears the voice of God’s messenger, he changes direction, both metaphorically and physically.
The King and his for-hire prophet end up discussing the parameters of the instructions to curse Israel. The prophet realizes, after several encounters with the Holy One of Israel, that he cannot go against the powerful Lord of the Hebrew tribes. He knows he is going against his contract, but he ends up actually blessing the Israelites with the words…
…which appear in a lengthy poem of praise to the Israelites. This phrase has entered our liturgy, part of the opening morning prayers, every day…. Amazing, huh?
To recap: religiously observant Jews in the 21st century recite a line of poetry, now part of the daily prayers, ascribed to a pagan prophet whose story was captured in the Bible, dating back to perhaps the 8th century before the common era (BCE).
The story ends with King Balak being very angry. More poetry is exchanged, and, in the end, the prophet Balaam goes home and the King goes back to his despair and his wrath, never having achieved his goals of cursing the Israelites.
Chapter 25 has one more story: how the Israelites, who had just been blessed and praised by a foreign prophet, have resumed their naughty behaviors, in imitation of their pagan neighbors. And what is the crime? They go “whoring with the daughters of Moab.” They begin to engage in the cultic and sexual activities related to the worship of Baal Pe’or. Of course this behavior is not acceptable to God, and so Moshe/Moses tells his chiefs to impale the wrong-doers so that the people can be saved from idolatry.
One of these leaders, a member of the priestly tribe and the grandson of Aaron, is Pinchas/Phineas, a hyper-energized zealot who takes a spear in his hand and stabs an Israelite man, Zimri, son of Salu, chieftain of the Simeonite tribe. Zimri is caught in flagrante delicto (Latin for “in blazing offense,” sometimes used colloquially as a euphemism for someone caught red-handed in sexual activity) while engaged in sexual intercourse with Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a Midianite chief. She is a princess and he is the son of a chief of one of the Tribes of Israel; these are not your average schleppers, and the fact that their lineage is mentioned means that they are prominent and well regarded, until now. Seems that God wanted to make an example of God’s utter intolerance of the alliances and intermarriages between the Midianites and the Israelites, despite the fact that in a previous generation, Moshe/Moses married Tzipporah, a Midianite, daughter of Yitro/Jethro, the beloved priest of Midian.
The attitudes of the Israelites towards assimilation and interchanges with their neighbors vacillate and change with the times… In some generations intimacy seems to have been more or less OK, and at other times completely forbidden. Do you think that vacillation exists today as well? How have attitudes towards intermarriages between races and religions changed over the past several generations?
Let’s end with an 18th century poem by Robert Burns, who sees a glorious exit to this world in the example of Zimri and Cozbi:
To think about as you read this week’s installment:
One might think that the way parashat Chukkat opens, with details about the way one must purify oneself after being in contact with the dead, we would be reading mind-numbing minutia of priestly rites with absolutely no relevance for us today. All this talk about a red heifer and how Eleazar the priest must sprinkle its blood hither and yon, followed by the burning, and how to use the sacred ashes. Whew! So impossibly arcane!! Turns out that the early rabbinic commentators used this particular law of the parah adumah (red heifer) to suggest that the Israelites had two separate categories of law: chukkim (statutes or Divine decrees) and mishpatim (logical laws).
The chukkim were (and are) laws that make no rational sense to us on the surface. Why would touching the ashes of a dead red cow purify one from being in contact with the dead? Or why are we still not allowed to mix certain kinds of fabrics (like linen and wool)?
The mishpatim were (and are) laws that seem to be based in logic. For example, the laws dealing with interpersonal relations such as not stealing or not murdering. They are rational if one is to build a civil and moral society — that is, they “make sense” to us.
The red heifer saga, which opens our parasha, is a prime example of a chok (law; the plural form is chukkim) that makes no sense. Nevertheless, it was very important to have some kind of ritual to draw a sharp line between contact with the dead and re-entry into daily life among the living. On a recent trip, I spent some time in the “Four Corners” area of the U.S., an area of land which belongs to the Navajo Nation. While in the Tribal Lands, I read a fascinating book, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing, by Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., in which she talks about the customs surrounding death in Navajo culture. For example: it is forbidden to touch a dead person; only those who care for the corpse may touch it. After they have prepared the body for burial, the people who have cared for the deceased remove their own clothes, and wash themselves completely before getting dressed again and mingling with the living. When a dead body is removed from a house or hogan, the hogan is burned down, and the place is abandoned. While there are many differences between contemporary Navajo and the Israelites of the desert, we can appreciate that the desert-dwelling Israelites had complex rituals for purification after contact with the dead, and it isn’t so completely different from the customs of other tribes.
But hold on, that’s not all this parasha has in store for us!
This parasha also includes the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the two siblings of our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) at the beginning of chapter 20. Miriam becomes forever linked to water. Think about the episodes linking Miriam and water: she protected baby Moshe when he was set afloat in the Nile, and she later sang the Song of the Sea as the Reed Sea waters parted to let the Israelites escape into freedom. Some of us have added the “Cup of Miriam” to our Passover seder tables to remember her special link. The rabbis connected Miriam to a magical well with springs of fresh water following the Israelites in the desert, because immediately after the verse marking her death (Numbers 20:1) we read “and the community had no water, and they assembled against Moses and against Aaron.” It was as if once Miriam died, the water dried up. So those creative early rabbinic commentators came up with the midrashim (stories) about Miriam’s well.
Aaron, big brother and life-long partner to Moshe/Moses, dies at the end of chapter 20; the description of his death in verses 24-29 reads like a scene from a movie. It is poignant, filled with ceremony and unstated emotion. Perhaps because the landscapes of the Navajo Tribal Lands are still in my brain, I flashed on Native Americans when I re-read these verses — the descriptive scene of Aaron’s death seemed like something I had seen in a movie about the death of a great Native American chief.
Finally, we get to the snake/serpent/viper. The G-dcast storyteller focuses on this fascinating little story in Chukkat — the symbol of the snake or serpent.
As with some alternative medical therapies, where one may be given the tiniest amounts of an allergen to ingest to counter-act one’s allergy, the G-dcast storyteller offers some ideas of how the snake became a healing symbol to counteract its poisonous bites (Numbers 21:6-9). The symbol Moshe/Moses is instructed to fashion is called “Nechash Nechoshet.” Biblical scholar and translator Robert Alter quotes medieval commentator Rashi, who remarked that G-d had just mentioned a “nachash” (serpent), but Moshe said: “the Holy One calls it nachash and I’ll make it out of nechoshet — a pun.” Alter points out that the force of replicating the same letters “reinforces the device of sympathetic magic whereby the sight of the bronze image of the serpent becomes the antidote for the serpents’ poisonous bite.”
And if you want to pursue this depiction of healing in today’s medical symbols, take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about the image of the snakes coiled around a staff.
Believe it or not, there’s a lot more to mine in this parasha, so stay tuned.