Category Archives: Monotheism

Parshat Lech Lecha (2013)


Genesis 12 – 17

That Time the First Jew and the First Priest Went Out for a Drink

Have you ever wondered who this Melchizedek character is? Why is he mentioned in the Torah, and what lesson does this personality have for us? In this week’s parsha we have this character just seem to drop into the story out of nowhere, and disappear just as quickly as he came. But there is a unique interaction going on here that is very curious and has kept the scholars speculating around it for ages.

Let us begin with the key verses of the section that we are going to explore this week:

“And Malchi Tzedek

king of Shalem

brought bread and wine.

He was the priest of the Most High G-d.

And he blessed and said:

‘Blessed be Avram to the Most High G-d,

Maker of the heavens and the earth.

And blessed be the Most High G-d,

who has delivered

your enemies into your hand.’

A tenth of everything was given to him.”

| UMalchi Tzedek

| melech Shalem

| hotzi lechem vayayin

| vehu kohen le-El Elyon

| Vayevarechehu vayomar

| baruch Avram le-El Elyon

| Koneh shamayim va’aretz

| Uvaruch El Elyon

| asher-migen

| tzareicha beyadecha

| vayiten-lo ma’aser mikol

Genesis 14:18-20

In this story we see Avram (the person later to be known as Abraham) meeting with a priest. We are told that he is the priest of El Elyon – literally the G-d Most High. We don’t know a lot about this person other than that he is a king and priest, and that Abraham feels obliged to show charity to this priest. Likewise this priest pronounces one of the first blessings ever recorded in the scriptures, recognizing Avram and pronouncing a blessing declaring him holy on to G-d.

melchitzedekThere is much known about Abraham, he is the father of the Jewish people. He is the patriarch of monotheistic tradition. We have plenty to explain his background in the scriptures, and in the midrashim and folklore that has grown up around his story. He is revered by all three of the major world religions as their root.

But of this Melchi-Tzedek there is such little to read about him, he is only ever mentioned in three verses of the Chumash, four verses in the entire bible. Everything else we think we know about him comes from interpretation and oral tradition. But there are a few things we for sure know about him, he is the king of a city named Shalem. Not only is he a king, but he is also a priest. He seems to be a dual spiritual and civil leader, along the lines of a Julius Caesar and the early Roman kings who served not just as emperor but also as Flamen Dialis, the high priest to Jupiter with official ritual duties. He is the first priest mentioned in the scriptures.

The scriptures don’t offer us much information about this king, nor his city. Other than his city is named Shalem. We do find another reference to this city of Shalem in the scriptures, “In Shalem is also set His tabernacle, and his dwelling-place is in Zion.” (Psalm 76:2) Shalem is thus equated with Jerusalem. Melchi-Tzedek is understood to be one of the Canaanite kings. The first king of Jerusalem.

His name also provides us a few ideas. It is not a simple name, it is actually two distinct words malchi and tzedek. It appears more of a title. In the Hebrew language there are two seemingly easy to recognize words, one is “malchi / my king” and other is “tzedek / justice.” However, Hebrew scholars note that ordinarily putting them together in this way is not with the normal rules of Hebrew. It appears more close to Aramaic, and therefore hints of possibly being derived from the closely related Phonetician and Canaanite languages.

This understanding leads modern scholars to believe that this king might have indeed been the first king of Jerusalem (though just merely known as Salem in those days). This city would have most likely been dedicated to the chief god of their pantheon, Tzedek, which we know as the planet Jupiter. In the Talmud we also see that the planet Jupiter is indeed called Tzedek in Hebrew as well. (Talmud Balvi, Shabbat 156a) Jupiter as a planet of huge mass and gravity would by Roman times be characterized as Zeus, the head the pantheon and the supreme authority among lesser gods.

This is a position that is very different from that of the most famous of midrashim. Our Jewish tradition most often equates Melchi-Tzedek with Shem, the son of Noah that is the patriarch of the Semetic peoples, the peoples of the temperate middle-east. Shem is believed to have eventually lived such a long life of success that he set-up the city of Shalem while the newly arrived Avram dwelt in the rough lands. In order to explain why our saintly father Avraham shows honor to Melchi-Tzedek the rabbis explain that Shem was also a great man with a saintly mission, even going as far as to suggest that Avraham learned at yeshivot he established. He was Abraham’s ancestor. With this in mind people would like to believe that like Abraham, Melchi-Tzedek was the last of a dying breed of monotheists. (see Parshat Lech Lecha 2011)

The truth probably lays somewhere in between the scholarship and the folklore. It is fair to assume to that Melchi-Tzedek was a Semite. It is also very likely that he was king of the infantile city of Jerusalem. Avram as a Semitic stranger would do well to show deference to this man. But what we do need to take notice of is that he only ever refers to G-d as “El-Elyon.” He does not refer to Him by Havayah – the distinct Four-letter Name of G-d. He instead seem to understand El, the well known god of the region as being his god; not just divine, but the most supreme (elyon) god (el).

I believe that we have enough proof to agree with the scholarly understanding, that Melchi-Tzedek is not a pure monotheist. Yet his status and faith is respected by Avram, and likewise in our tradition that it should make its way into the Torah.

Because of the mysteriousness of this character, Melchi-Tzedek has been commented and embellished upon. It was so in the times of Josephus and even in the Christian writings. By the time of the Talmud there had been a multitude of stories that attribute something almost supernatural about his character. In absence of information ridiculous claims are made, for example the Christian bible states that because we don’t hear of his mother of father mentioned this Melchi-Tzedek must have been divine; he just wasn’t born of humans. People write a lot in between the lines.

For a moment we need to step away from all the dogma and look at the facts as presented in the Torah. The reason we don’t see a lot mentioned about Melchi-Tzedek is because the story isn’t about him at all. It is clearly evident that in this story he not the star, he is just an extra on the set to help carry the story along.

To understand the story we need to go all the way back to the beginning and read it in context. It begins at the top of the fourth aliyah. Most readers only look at the verses that mention this guy’s name, but they are the last three verses of our actual reading!

The fourth aliya begins at the top of the 14th chapter of Genesis. To save us the pain of all the mental work and identifying each party, all we need to understand is that the first half of the chapter is about how the kings of Mesopotamia and the kings of the Jordan valley come to war against each other. It appears that tribute states are rebelling against their regent and their allies. (v.1-9)

The second half of the chapter is about a literal quagmire of war, the rebels being hunted down and slaughtered in marshes as they tried to escape. Among the escapees were the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah who ran for their lives. (v.10) The rest of the chapter is about the aftermath of their defeat after the capture of these towns. We are told that the Persian king and the vassal kings sack the towns and take away pretty much anything they could carry. (v.11)

Now ordinarily this would have nothing to do with Avram, as he doesn’t live in either area. He dwells in the plains of Mamre among the Amorites and their allies. (v.13) However his most beloved nephew Lot dwelt in the city of Sodom, and his family and his possessions were captured as part of the plunder. They are likely to be killed or sold off into slavery. (v.12) One of the refugees from this war comes and reports all this to Avram.

Now here we see him described as Avram haIvri – Avram the Hebrew (עברי), the descendant of Ever (עבר), son of Shem. Ivri also means “to cross over,” here we see that Avram is different and separate from the rest of these Semites that are waring here. He is understood to be a distinct clan already. His own had already become a separate people, even though Avram has no children of his own.

And this is the key issue, Lot is an orphaned nephew that he was very close to. Not only are they endeared to another as family, but Lot stood to be the full inheritor of all Avram’s estate. (see the Parashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012) Lot is Avram’s only heir as he had no son. What Avram did have was 318 trained disciples that had been born into his clan, men that he mobilized in rescue of his heir. (v.14)

The young men follow Avram to war, they follow them up through the valley of the river Dan in the north, until he surrounds and defeats the Mesopotamians just west of Damascus. (v.15) All that was sacked is brought back by Avram, all the people and possessions. Men and women both are delivered from their captivity. Among them are also Lot and his possessions. (v.16)

Now here is the one point that most people miss, on Avram’s return we have the runaway king of Sodom coming out to meet Avram. It is the king of Sodom that first goes out to meet Avram and his returning army.

And then in the middle of this the most striking thing takes place. Someone else walks into the situation and steals the spotlight just for a brief moment. Melchi-Tzedek just walks in out of nowhere, without any introduction. He offers Avram bread and wine, and extends his blessing. We hear nothing more about Melchi-Tzedek, other than that he receives a tithe from Avram from the captured booty.

Now notice no explanation is given for the tithe, and we have to assume it is Avram giving the tithe because the language itself doesn’t explicitly say so, just that a tithe “viyaten-lo / was given to him.” We assume Melchizedek is the “he.” The question comes in because we aren’t even sure why he is here at all, he is not king of one of these town nor was he even present in the battle. None of this concerns him. Is he coming out with symbols of hospitality and benevolence out of fear of Avram, or does he want something?

I think the latter point is the greater motivation. Avram is now returning with his small army and his captured spoils, and the local kings want their cut. This is such a major point that we begin a whole new aliya just to make this point. And at the head of the fifth aliya the first thing we read of is the king saying to Avram, “Ten-li hanefesh veharechush kach-lach / Give me the souls, and you can keep the goods.” (v.21) This point seems simple and maybe understated with few words, but in the reading of the Torah it stands out as one the driving points of the parsha.

The coward king of Sodom now comes out to meet Avram and he immediately and brazenly bark out his demands. He wants all the living souls, the people. But Abraham can keep of the other material spoils, for his trouble. He wants back all his people just as much as Avram wanted back Lot. There is no celebrating and praises as with Melchi-Tzedek, nor is there even a simple “thank you” given. He just wants what was taken from him.

According the orthodox female scholars Nehama Lebowitz, of blessed memory, Mechli-Tzedek is merely a character used as a device to contrast the unbefitting demands of the king of Sodom. To show the arrogance of his demands, and to display the lack of honor given to someone he should feel indebted to.

So what we see here is that Melchi-Tzedek is a person that who isn’t involved at all, but he shows respect to Avram and gets a portion of the spoils. We would expect the king of Sodom to show the same respect, in order to get back what he wants. But instead he just alarmingly barks a demand, before Avram starts giving away more of what he sees as his.

In the face of this demand Avram gives back everything that is taken, he didn’t really want it anyway. All he went out for was to retrieve Lot and his possessions from the mess he had gotten himself caught up in. All he claims for himself and his hired men was the food they had eaten. He doesn’t need his money, and startlingly gives everyone and everything back lest anyone say Avram was made rich off of this man’s misfortune.

For a second I would like us to step back and take a look at this parsha, and it’s use of a narrative to get across so much information. Yes we read about a long since forgotten ancient skirmish, one that would be of little relevance itself if it hadn’t been for Lot’s foolish attachment to this wild and lawless region. Here we are only in our third parsha of the Torah, and we are already being forced to have to pick out truths about the character of the persons involved. To learn from their example, both good and bad. Here in this we learn to find truth in even the most seemingly irrelevant of stories by keenly trying to identify with the people.

And the lesson is this, that even the smallest amount of gratitude goes a long way. We are taught the importance of respect and honor, and the uncouthness that there is outside of this code of ethics and morals.

Avram of course gives everything back, because he is a saint. Instead of being reactionary, he shames the king of Sodom with kindness. He shows he’s above this pettiness and hands it all over. Avram not only shows good character, he shows exceptional character. I hope that more of us would follow by his example.

A Battle for the Souls

One of the things that is brought up in this parsha is a contrasting of moral values. The lawlessness of the Jordan valley and their idolatry is contrasted against Avram and his monotheistic moral crusade. That is why Avram is spoken about as the Ivri – the Hebrew at this point, the one who “crossed over” to not be part of this mess and their way of life. What Avram had done instead is found a monotheistic community, a sizable one that is able to exert itself. Their ability to accomplish this campaign attests to their strength and influence.

Our rabbis and teachers often note on this point that here when Avram and his people first clash with the Canaanite kings of the region his issue is a battle for souls. I can’t help but be reminded of this by the language our rabbis use in the Ladino (Hebreo-Spanish language, the Sephardi tongue) translation of the Chumash, “Da a mi la alma, y la ganaçia toma para ti / Take for yourself the souls, and you keep the earnings.” (Constantinople Chumash, 1547)

Normally when we hear the word nefesh and souls used in the Torah we think of the word simply meaning living souls, meaning people. Souls mean people.

When it comes to Avram, the founder of this monotheistic community, the word souls takes on another meaning. Soul can also mean the deeper spiritual person within. We think of him primarily being interested in accumulating souls, in winning converts and growing his force of free men. If we wanted anything to claim as his reward from this battle, it would most likely be the people. He had interest in little else.

From this point of view the face off with the king of Sodom is one of the dethroned leader also telling Avram that they don’t want his religion, he wants his people back so they can live according to their own style as a pleasure kingdom. This eventually happens and it leads to their ultimate destruction later on.

But in the midst of this story comes forward one person of exceptional merit. He is not a Hebrew, he is part of the Canaanite establishment. He has all the makings of a good religious person, but his theology has degraded to being a near-monotheism; a composite form of monotheism. Melchi-Tzedek considered himself a monotheist in the same manner Christians or Hindus would consider themselves monotheistic, while still having a multiplicity of divine forms. Thus his god is designated “the Most High G-d.”

People often read too much into this story, and see the interaction as more than just the giving of gifts between the cheerful and celebratory Avram and Melchi-Tzedek. Though it is essential to recognized that there is a meeting of two great men of different faiths, that both show respect to each other.

Our father Abraham shows us a good example here early on in the history of the development of his faith, he shows how people of different ideas can be respectful to one another. But even more than that, Avram seems to recognize Melchi-Tzedek as a fellow traveler. Even though Avram has decided to take a different path away from the degraded theology that had come to dominate the other Semites of his day. Avram honors and recognized this man merely on the character of his words and deeds, he takes a chance on an unlikely candidate. Melchi-Tzedek is an outsider that is respected by Abraham himself.

For a lot of reasons people of just about every tradition have become fascinated with the story of king Melchi-Tzedek. He serves as an archetypal example for the outsiders. For this reason gentiles and the other religions who honor the bible often feel an affinity with him. He is not just a good gentile, but he is also a respectable non-Hebrew priest.

It should not surprise us that people want to lay claim to Melchi-Tzedek and his legacy, to be inheritors to knowledge about G-d that predates and supersedes the normal Abrahamic and Mosaic system.

The bible actually gives us our first example of a person pining to be honored as such an exception. Even King David wanted to be honored this way, as not just a king but also as a priestly figure in building the temple. He wrote a psalm where he declares that G-d has called him to be priest after the order of Melchi-Tzedek forever. He wants himself, or his messianic descendants be an exception to the rule. To be treated as a diamond in the rough, not just now but forever. (see Psalm 110)

In every moral religious community and stratus of religious commitment we can find these diamonds in the rough. These exceptional characters that by their deeds and words stand out. Their ethical behavior and good form is worthy of being recognized and emulated.

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Parshat Bereishit (2013)


Genesis 1 – 6:8

How We Kabbalistically Bring Thoughts Into Reality

sephirot4pngbbbOver the past few years this Torah portion has been a starting place for me to discuss aspects of Kabbalah, the basics of Jewish mysticism. It is nearly impossible for me to discuss the topic of creative process without doing so through the eyes of received wisdom. In Hebrew to mitkabel means to receive. Our received Jewish mystical tradition is thus called Kabbalah, it is the studying of received truth as documented in the Torah and it’s wealth of commentary.

One of the reasons that I feel I must take this approach is because the allegorical and spiritual essence of this story is intentional and central to the creation narrative. It’s not a cop-out that was invented by modern apologist. The Torah uses seemingly esoteric use of symbolism that richly color this narrative like none other in the scriptures.

Generally when we are looking for mystical truth from the Torah we turn to books like the Zohar, the book of enlightenment that is a commentary to the Torah. The Zohar is broken down in basic discussions and parashot (sections) that match up with cycle of parashiyot (our weekly Torah readings). It’s not the only text of kabbalah, but it is the most exhaustive and essential of the primary works of Torah commentary. Though most scholars can only date this text back as far as the middle ages, it is written in the language and tone as that of the Talmud. It features the same sages and presents the same form of discourses as Talmudic literature. Jews receive this text as being among the many mesoretic inheritances handed down to us, one that was once oral but has since been written down for posterity.

I present some commentary from the Zohar in order to offer us some guidance of how we should look at the Torah, for how we should be reading it as we go along. This is probably a good discussion to have now, as we are renewing our cycle of Torah reading for another year. Our text reads as follows:

“Says Rabbi Shimon: Woe to the man who says that the Torah came to merely relate stories and ordinary words. For if this was so, even in this present day we could make a Torah from ordinary tales; and ones probably nicer than those [in the scriptures]. If it came to present earthly matters, then even the [present] rulers of the world have among themselves works which are superior. If this is the case, let us follow their example and compose some sort of Torah of our own…

…Woe to the wicked that say that the Torah consists of stories and nothing more, for they look at the [outer] garment and no further. Praiseworthy are the righteous, who look at the Torah the proper way. Just as wine must be in a container to hold it, the Torah does not endure unless in its mantle. So therefore only look at what is under the garment. All those words and stories are garments.”

רש אמר ווי לההוא בנ דאמר דהא אורייתא אתא לאחזאה ספורין בעלמא ומלין דהדיוטי. דאי הכי אפילו בזמנא דא אנן יכלין למעבד אורייתא במלין דהדיוטי ובשבחא יתיר מכלהו אי לאחזאה מלה דעלמא אפילו אינון קפסירי דעלמא אית בינייהו מלין עלאין יתיר. אי הכי נזיל אבתרייהו ונעביד מנייהו אורייתא כהאי גוונא אלא כל מלין דאורייתא מלין עלאין אינון ורזין עלאין.

ווי לאינון חייביא דאמרי דאורייתא לאו איהי אלא ספורא בעלמא ואינון מסתכלי בלבושא דא לא יתיר זכאין אינון צדיקייא דמסתכלי באורייתא כדקא יאות. חמרא לא יתיב אלא בקנקן כך אורייתא לא יתיב אלא בלבושא דא. ועד לא בעי לאסתכלא אלא במה דאית תחות לבושא ועד כל אינון מלין וכל אינון ספורין לבושין אינון:

Zohar: Parshat Behaaolatecha 58; 64

One of the reasons that many traditional, orthodox Jews find it fairly easy to exist in a world of deep religious conviction while still excelling in science and reason is because the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is one called to compromise one for the other. Our Torah presents our truths, our reason produces our facts.

Though we look to this Torah for truth, we don’t presume that all that is true about the world is written here in the Torah. It is the truth, but it does not demand that we see it as necessarily factually or chronologically true. The Torah is the essential truth that G-d has revealed into this world, but it cannot be used as a history book or as a primer in physical science.

Interestingly, this Zohar text is redacted in the middle-ages, when knowledge was lost and they looked back to a more glorious and well documented past. But in his tone the author suggests that even in their dark-ages a contemporary historian could have come up with something more profound if one tried. If this Torah is about fact, then wise and important men have libraries of books that do a better job at that than our Torah. The Torah cannot have been given to us for that purpose or else it is obsolete and antiquated. Surely today in an age of science and empirical evidence this is even more true. We need to read the text deeper, in fact according to the “right way,” which is through allegory and symbolism.

Most people who come from other religious experiences tend to find this position mighty progressive, and maybe even a bit irreverent. But for the person of reason, this tends to come across as refreshing. The only people who tend to get irritated by this approach are those who intend to mock Torah, who need biblical literalism to stand as their straw-man to kick over.

It’s not just atheists that tend dislike this approach, even co-religionists tend to get upset with me for stating this. For instance once I sat in a class and heard a very liberal rabbi poking fun at our ancestors for not understanding how the world worked. His reason was to in like fashion characterize present orthodox Jews as handicapped by an almost magical view of creation and history.

When I later pulled him aside and asked how he felt his reduction to absurdity was intellectually honest he got upset. I posed that if you considering it, the more orthodox the person the more they tend to revere this mystical and allegorical mentality as found in the Zohar, it’s not theory for light-weights. In response he made issue with the authority of the Zohar and challenged that kabbalah is not universally appreciated. However I contended that this approach was a well documented and accepted concept in Judaism much prior to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it is not a product of modern religious movements. Elements of kabbalah permeate much of our established Jewish customs and liturgy, it is a shared heritage. It is not a marginal philosophy, therefore it is dishonest to mis-characterize what it means to be a Torah believing person by slighting this approach.

One of the points I have to make to people like this when discussing the creation story of Genesis, is that we need to not just recognize the similarities that exist among the various myths and legends (example: the great flood). We also need to look at stories more multi-layered, the way we clearly know to do for the texts of other well documented societies; the Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Persians, Romans, etc. We know that their equivalent of the genesis narratives are made not as much to describe the literal composition of the world, but to present their perceived architecture of existence. Their philosophy surrounding the formation of the world and living souls presented in their stories was for the purpose of displaying the structure of the soul and the creative process. For these societies their sacred texts were discussion points that encouraged an almost early attempt at the philosophy of psychology. It not just said how the souls were formed, but also to exhibited what motivates them.

Now it’s not just defense of traditional Judaism that motivates me to engage people, like the previously mentioned rabbi, to dig further into our tradition to reveal a deeper kernel of truth in these stories. It’s because as people who represent Judaism to others we need to get beyond the claim that Torah is primarily concerned with mere history, because that approach does not offer us any reason for why one should personally seek out G-d or spirituality.

The Zohar, in the name of Rabbi Shimon, instead says it’s not just beneficial for us to look beyond the surface level meaning of the Torah, but it calls anyone that does not do so a sinner. The Zohar insists that we consider another way, it demands that we look for the soul of the Torah.

And this is that path that we will take as we begin to explore the Torah this year. Not that allegory is only present in the Zohar, it is present in all forms of rabbinic literature, however it is a central focus of the Zohar. Our starting off place this year is with the Zohar, as it offers us one of the best descriptions of how allegory and mystical interpretation of the scriptures works.

The Zohar contends that the Torah is wrapped in a mantle, but underneath there is a living soul to it. It’s like a person, when we look at someone generally the first thing that we see is their appearance. We judge their demeanor, how well they are dressed-up and how they present themselves. But the Zohar contends that just as foolish as it would be for us to judge a person based on their outer appearance, it is so when consider only the surface level of the Torah. (Zohar, ff. 61)

The Zohar tell us that the Torah is not just an abstract thing, there is a real substance to it. There is a solid body of truth to it. The Zohar calls the Torah mitzvot (the laws and commandments, good and holy deeds) “gufei Torah / the Body of the Torah” in Aramaic (the Talmudic language of rabbinic Judaism). It is the frame that holds us up. And on this frame hang our “levushin / garments,” the stories of the Torah are thus like the clothing one wears, that dress one up but at the same time conceal hidden person underneath.

The rabbis here challenges us to be wise, to not just look at the surface oblivious that of the anything else might existing beneath it all. If it was a person we would want to see the body underneath. Even more so we should want to get to know the person that is even deeper than that, so intimately so that we can almost touch their soul. The Zohar states that we are to look as deep as we can. Stating that the sages and our ancestors who stood at Sinai were so wise that, “la mis’taklei ela b’nishmata, d’i’hi ikara dchola oraita mamash / they only looked at the soul of the Torah, which is the essential root of everything, the real Torah.” We are told that in the future, in the world to come, all will see the soul of the Torah. (Zohar. ff. 62)

So why do we consider the Torah and its commands (mitzvot) at all? What do we have to learn from them? What importance does this Torah have to us? And why should we practice Torah mitzvot?

The Torah is the physical body that houses the soul of Essential Truth, clothed in the beauty of a story. It tells us how to bring the Divine Will into physicality, we do this by causing our soul to meet up with a physical action as mitzvot – doing the will of G-d in performing good deeds and spiritual acts.

But why does this kabbalah, the essence of all that is, have to be revealed through the Torah? The Zohar explains because it needs to be revealed in a form that we can understand. The Zohar brings forward an idea of the spiritual realm that we already understand to show as an example, it uses angels and their taking on a physical form. In order for us to perceive of them they take on a physical appearance. It is not just to see them, but also because their raw energy would be overwhelming if we came in direct contact with it. So too, this essential truth needs to be presented in a form we can understand, and in a fashion in which we can approach. (Zohar ff. 59)

The Zohar further contends that the “true Torah” (which we can call kabbalah) cannot be separated from its mantle, from the stories and it’s discussions in the scriptures. If we tried to separate them it could not last, anymore than wine could if you removed it from its flask. It needs to be held and preserved in this fashion.

However, just like with wine, we are really interested in what is on the inside. We should continue to seek to reach the sweet and sometimes intoxicating center of Divine reality hidden in these scriptures.

As we move forward in our Torah learning over this next year, I would hope that we begin to look at the scriptures as a guide to bringing our abstract feelings of faith and potential that is in our souls into reality. To utilize the Torah as our muscle to move us forward, so that we can labor in producing mitzvot that correct ourselves (tikkun atzmi) and repair our world (tikkun olam).

Continuing Discussion Regarding Applied Kabbalah

Last time we discussed this parsha we began to talk about basics of kabbalah. We started off with the primary concepts of the Three Pillars, the three modalities. They are symbolized by the variables ש for Fire, מ for Water, and א for Air. (see Parshat Bereishit 2012) When we discuss these aspects we must understand we are not talking about true elements. We are merely using these descriptions in order to best display the nature of the modalities. We are using these things to express how they react towards each other. It’s like talking about electromagnetic states; positive, negative and neutral. We began to discuss how we need to bring balance to our nature; to not be too much of a hot wire, nor should we bone cold, but we should find a golden middle path. We should bring balance to our thoughts and actions.

Now the reason we started out with the sefirah of Chesed – the Divine aspect of Kindness (also called Gedulah, or “greatness”) – is because that is the first real manifestation of G-d in the world that we can experience, according to kabbalah. It is a great and expansive form of kindness which is displayed in the scriptures as the first of the Seven Lower Sefirot – the seven Divine aspects that we display in this physical world (they are drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:11).

upperthreesefirotbThey are not the only aspects of G-d that exist. Indeed there are higher aspects of the Divine that transcend physical form, so they take the form of consciousness. They are understood as Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (discernment) and Daat (understanding, also displayed as Keter, the Crown). These are the Three Upper Sefirot. Though we understand that physical forms begin to take shape with Chesed, the scriptures tell us that very foundations of the physical world are first laid in Chochmah, in wisdom. (“Hashem b’chochma yasad-aretz,” see Proverbs 3:20) And that is what we are learning about today, creation and the creative process. How it goes from thought to physicality. We do so through the story of how a purposeful thought became ha-aretz, the Earth.

Our Torah text reads as follows:

“At the beginning

G-d created the heavens

and the earth.

Now the earth was desolate and

formless,

and darkness covered the face the deep.

And the wind of G-d hovered

upon the face of the waters.

And G-d said:

Let there be light!

And then there was light.”

| Bereshit

| bara Elohim et hashamayim

| ve’et ha’aretz

| Veha’aretz hayetah tohu

| vavohu

| vechoshech al-penei tehom

| veruach Elohim merachefet

| al-penei hamayim.

| Vayomer Elohim

| yehi-or v

| ayehi-or.

Genesis 1:1

In our kabbalistic understanding there are Ten Sefirot – ten aspects that manifest the Divine. Our sages first tell us in the Talmud that there are ten creative acts, that we call the Ten Utterances. (see Talmud, Rosh haShanah 32a) They point to here in the scriptures, where G-d says “Let there be…” Now the Talmud notes the fact that we only see nine actual spoken commands to accounts for. There is at least one unspoken act, and that is the actual creation of the world itself. If we look at our text we see a primordial world spring into existence at the beginning (bereshit). One that is formless and in chaos, with bodies of water and winds blowing over the surface of them. From this perspective the whole first sentence of Torah becomes one creative act.

From the Talmudic perspective we see how will and intention – pure thought (as expressed through the Upper Three Sefirot) – must precede action (as expressed by the Lower Seven Sefirot). Creation comes down from a higher consciousness, in the same manner that impulses from our brains manifest in the actions of our body.

The Zohar however has a slightly different take on things. It shifts the focus even more metaphysically. It agrees that there was something before this start, that is yet undescribed in the scriptures. Though it begins to count the Ten Utterances from the words, “Let there be light.” This is the first true act of creation, the Zohar contends. It starts with light, understanding that G-d needed to create a way in which to relate to us. A divine manifestation to permeate the universe that we can understand, which we perceive that as Light. The Zohar takes us to the very moments near the big bang, when the universe seems to inflate from an infinitesimally minuscule point and it is yet flooded with light.

The Zohar teaches that this overwhelming light which is displayed at the top of our kabbalistic tree, in Keter (the Crown, the highest level of consciousness), is what we can perceive of as G-d, the creator. He is manifested as a stream of pure and all-encompassing light that is without form, Ohr (אור). It is the highest aspect of the modality of synthesis, the type of state we spoke of in Tiferet (harmony); everything is in balance. There is no lack of anything, there is nothing but an endless amount of potential energy in this universe for us to draw from there. G-d is one, and nothing else exists aside from His being. In His highest form we understand G-d as being Ohr Ein Sof – the Light (ohr) that is without (ain) end (sof). G-d is everything, and yet not one thing at all.

G-d needed a place to display this power so He created a void space, The universe was thus created as an empty canvas for G-d to work with. A blank screen on which he could project His light. Into this space the Divine takes all this energy and projects it out of pure will. This is a positive force, akin to a masculine drive; this is displayed as Chochmah, which is the higher manifestation of Chesed.

tree-emptyIt takes root in Binah, in a constrictive and yet receptive form of consciousness; we understand it as being akin to a feminine aspect. Binah we understand to mean “understanding,” but it is more like receiving a spark of intuition. It is a consciousness achieved through receptivity. From here all creative things are birth. This is the upper aspect akin to Gevurah.

Thus in this structure, the crowing truth is that G-d Consciousness is pure thought, intellect and understanding (The Upper Three). When it is synthesized to be translatable into the mortal world it take the form of Daat, which is Knowledge. The world cannot contain all of the “ultimate truth,” but it is discernible through knowledge.

And at the heart of us people are our emotional drives, the first three of the Lower Seven, which is the second level of this cosmic modality (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet). But what we need to understand and be knowledgeable regarding is the reality that we are more than just the sum of our emotions and drives. These drives are reflections of a higher consciousness and state of mindfulness that we drawing down from a higher spiritual place.

The reason why we need to get into control of our thoughts and emotions, is because eventually they transform into actions. Our emotions replicate themselves as Netzach (Endurance), Hod (Glory), and Yesod (Foundation). This is the realm of action, where our thoughts result in work to produce what we only vision in an abstract way; in our thoughts and emotions.

These levels of the grouped sefirot are called partzufim (configurations); they are gradations of truth and existence. So far we have seen three levels of this emanation. Partzufim are described as almost separate realms, understood as distinct “worlds.” In this form of mystical teaching we state that the creative power of the Divine trickled down through levels of formation and actualization until it results in producing this world, the earth. We are told earth is created in Malchut, the lowest of the ten sefirot. It is displayed in the fourth and lowest level of the partzufim. This is the realm of the physical world, were intent, drive and actions come into true form. It is not just potential and intent anymore. Malchut in the fourth patzuf is the realm where one’s will become a true products – a solid form through action. (assiyah)

During creation in this realm we see the primordial states ש (Fire), מ (Water) and א (Air) take form to become a new elemental state never existed before – haAretz, the Earth. Unlike the mysticism of the occult schools, we understand the earth is not eternal, earth is not a natural state on its own. It is formed out of the combination of three primordial states.

The Three Mother letters thus take their place standing over the Three Pillars, they best exemplify the first three sefirot (Keter, Chochman and Binah; and alternatively in different instances Chochmah, Binah, and Daat). These three do not directly touch this world, as it cannot contain them; they are transcendent.

worldscharts2Now to I must quickly bring us up to speed how this affects our understanding of the Etz Chaim – the Tree of Life – the form that sefirot take as they descend into our reality. The Three Mother elements spawn the creation of the physical world. The Lower Seven Lower sefirot thus become expressed by Seven Letters (ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ר, ת) that correspond to the physical world. They are clearly representative of a shift in reality to a consciousness of space and time. These Seven Letters also correspond to the seven days of the week, and the seven planets of the classical world (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Thus the Three Mothers are the mochin (the brains), and the Seven Lower are the middot (characteristics) in which we manifest these thoughts and impulses through (such as emotions).

So what does this have to do with you and I? Why should this matter at all to any of us? This is all very psychedelic, but what is the usefulness of considering this?

One of the things that we learn here in Parshat Bereishit is that man (adam) was created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of G-d. That does not mean that we were made to look physiologically like G-d Almighty. We are made in His image, but not as a duplicate of Him. We are not photocopies of G-d, however we do exhibit more like a traced shadow copy of G-d’s nature as though made in a camera obscura. Still the blueprint form we see in the spiritual realms for His general workings are also displayed in us. The order we see spiritually displayed in G-d’s emanations are nearly the same in principle as that of the working of our souls.

Many kabbalists understand man to be almost a microcosm of G-d, and even of the Universe itself. We have G-d given creativity and ability to shape a destiny for this universe. We do this by actualizing things we perceive in our higher intellect and imagination, and continue to work with something until all our effort begins to take a true and functioning form. And above our own intellect is an inspiration that we can also learn to draw down from a higher realms of spiritual consciousness.

In conclusion I want to remind us that we are talking about creation and the creative process. We naturally have in us the ability to create what we conceive of in our minds and dream of in our hearts. But a lot of the struggle in making that possible is learning to first let our heads rule our hearts. To be mindful and follow the cues of the wise inspiration that G-d has placed in our hearts. If so then we can be people who are not just creative, but also profoundly artistic and productive. Like the craftsman Bezalel who build the Mishkan (tabernacle) and temple instruments, for whom it is said:

And I have filled him with the Spirit of G-d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship…

וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָלמְלָאכָה

Exodus 31:3

Tips: We learned today that the commandments and the spiritual acts that we do are the gufei Torah – the Body of the Torah, because this is how we embody the Light and the true fullness of the Torah consciousness. But just like any body, if we exercise our various parts we strengthen our greater body. We become stronger and more nimble at doing the things we challenge ourselves with. Likewise in order for us to build up our creative skills and ability we need to work-out spiritually. We engage all the various parts of our intellect and desires in doing mitzvot – good deeds, spiritual acts.

The Torah mitzvot are tried and true ways to help us develop our skills and strengths. For every little good deed we do we also grown in a sense of accomplishment and pride.

It doesn’t take much to spark mindfulness and the creative process. Chant a beautiful prayer, learning a little Torah, give a tad of charity, or volunteer in the community.


Parshat Terumah (2013)


Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Making a Dwelling Place for G-d

Hashem spoke to Moses saying:

Speak to the Children of Israel

and let them take for Me a portion,

from every man whose heart motivated him

you shall take My portion.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| veyikchu-li trumah

| me’et kol-ish asher yidvenu libo

| tikchu et-trumati

Exodus 25:1

Pillar of Smoke and FireThis weeks parsha begins with the words “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor / Hashem spoke to Moses saying.” The first question we should ask ourselves is, when did He say this; when did this take place? There are various possibilities presented to us by our Sages and Rabbis. The Baalei Tosafot, Ibn Ezra, the Zohar and several other commentaries say that these words were spoken to Moshe Rabbenu – Moses our Teacher – when he went up to the mountain for 40 days. However, Rashi’s commentary of Exodus, with both Tanchumah and Seder Olam Rabbah, contend that these words were spoken after the incident of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to receive the second set of tablets. However the point should be made that we are certain that these words are connected to either one of these events; you see the book of Exodus primarily concerns itself with two topics from here on. Aside from the story of the Gold Calf (which only takes up two chapters), the remainder of the book of Exodus is devoted to the preparation for construction of the Mishkan the Tabernacle. This parsha is named Trumah, after the portion contributed by each person to help build this Tabernacle sanctuary mentioned here.

In terms of the dictation of biblical commandments, the central focus of the mitzvot of Exodus surrounds the Mishkan. This being the case then we must furthermore ask ourselves what the significance of the Mishkan is. For the Hebrew speaker the word Mishkan is so direct and simple that the profoundness of it can easily be missed; Mishkan literally means a dwelling place, or a habitation. Before the Beit haMikdash the Temple – this was done in the Mishkan tent and not a fixed building, but here in this parsha we see the foundation of Temple worship laid for both instances. Our parsha reads:

Now they shall make Me a sanctuary,

and I will dwell among them.”

| Ve’asu li mikdash

| veshachanti betocham.

Exodus 25:8

And that is really all the place was, a sanctuary constructed unto G-d. There was indeed a type of worship that was centered in this complex, it was designed with altars for sacrifices of all sorts, but namely the perpetual tamid offering of incense that was always lit as the central element of worship. The other task of temple worship was to care for the Holy of Hollies (Kadosh Kadoshim), held in an inner building that also had a perpetually lit candelabrum, the Menorah that illuminated the sanctuary. This was considered the earthly dwelling place of the G-d of Israel. It was so notorious that people from all over the world came to witness it, even though no one other than the high priest was allowed to go into the innermost sanctum. The priests occupied themselves with maintaining this during the day, but the symbols of its occupation through its fires was constant.

What demanded so much attention? What made this all so holy that it would drive the theme of the scriptures so much and the imaginations of people throughout the ages in such a profound way? Even those who are not G-d fearing have asked this question.

In the year 63 B.C.E. after years of besieging the city of Jerusalem the arrogant Roman general Pompey insisted as “victor” had the right to enter into the Holy of Holies itself – beyond of the veils into the Kadosh Kadoshim, his motivation seemingly one of defiance as much as curiosity. Roman historian Tacitus made note of it this way:

Roman control of Judaea was first established by Gnaeus Pompey. As victor he claimed the right to enter the Temple, and this incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity — the sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted.”

The Histories:” Book Five §9,

Cornelius Tacitus, 105 C.E.

When Pompey entered he found no images, no symbols of any kind. All he found was old Torah scrolls occupying the inner chambers. Though this is documented over 150 years after the fact, this is one of the only historical and independent reference we really have that describes the interior for us. Flavius Josephus would also note this event as well, but aside from that the only thing we know about the Temple is from the Torah and the Talmud.

I find it interesting that of all the things that is noted by the classic historians, they would marvel in the lack of images or representations of a deity. Also when Tacitus and Josephus, both imperial Romans but one being non-Jewish and the other Jewish, make this point and note that it is unoccupied they are making a huge statement. Normally in the Greco-Roman custom, like for most other non-Jews of the region, it was common for even a priests or priestesses to be consecrated as a living deity and abide in the inner chambers of their temple complexes. But this was not the case here. It was unique and noteworthy, there were no idols nor demigods or devis in this sanctuary.

Though this is not what surprises most of us Torah students, we are not at all taken back by its lack of images or representations. In much of our recent studies we have discussed the Torah’s demand that we not give in to idolatry and how it champions iconoclasm. In terms of general religion this complex is pretty simple, but this Temple is not exactly empty though. So what should surprise us is the nature of the commandments being given in order to make a sanctuary. The specifics for construction are extremely detailed and demanding, building instruments that are intended for a home; candelabras, tables, curtains, ect. Why are they being told to build things out of precious gold, to make a dwelling tent for an incorporeal G-d? What type of need does it satisfy?

In the Talmud people also wrestle with this question, and the rabbis come to an interesting conclusion as to why all the ritual tenants of the sanctuary were created:

Rabbi Sheshet retorted: ‘Place the lampstand outside the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant…’ (Lev. 24:3) Does [the Holy One, blessed be He] need it’s light? All forty years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, were they not following His light? However, the lampstand attests to all who are in the world that the Divine Presence dwells among Israel.”

מתיב רב ששת: (ויקרא כד) מחוץ לפרוכת העדות יערוך וכי לאורה הוא צריך והלא כל ארבעים שנה שהלכו בני ישראל במדבר לא הלכו אלא לאורו אלא עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל:

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 22b

In this text Rabbi Sheshet asks us to consider a section of Torah of Leviticus 24:1-4. What our text seems to imply is that even though some of the ritual items appear to have a usefulness, their purpose is for more than mere functionality. For those who are keen to the rituals of Torah know there were no Temple services that took place during the evening, there was no work for the priests to do that demanded light. The lamp-stands were purely intended to stand before the presence of G-d, in the same way as the golden cherubim that were made also stood there to herald the presence of G-d in the sanctuary and flood it with reflective light off their golden wings. The priest didn’t work by the menorah’s diffused light, nor did G-d need its light as He showed His presence in a self-illuminating cloud before His people during the Exodus. Our rabbis here contend that the reason for the ritual items was to signify to the world that G-d’s presence dwells among Israel.

I want us to remember that this section of Torah goes in tandem with Golden Calf crisis, either being immediately before or precisely after the incident. It may seem odd to us that G-d, who unleashes wrath on the people for making a cult around objects of gold and worshiping before them, that here He would be commanding people to make a Temple complex and corresponding rituals for it in worship to Him. Again, no one is exactly sure if this is taking place while the people are below building a Golden Calf or if it is after the fact; but what the juxtaposition of these stories tells us is that G-d had to define right away how the people of Israel were going to be able to relate to Him because left to their own devices they would degenerate into idol worship. And that is exactly what happened, after Moses and the cloud of glory ascended to the mountain and was far off from them for long.

Though our Talmud lesson here turns it all around on us, it make the point that G-d did not need any of these items anymore than He needed a lamp for light. But the people felt a great need, they intensely needed something to symbolize that G-d dwelt among them. Just like the pillar of cloud by day, the smoke of incense offerings would raise up from the middle of the camp; and the same as a pillar of fire by night, the Menorah would shine its light to remind the people of the Divine Presence that dwelt among them.

I have to stress that point, that this sanctuary is to remind the people that G-d dwells among them, because the truth is that G-d is always with us. In all instances before the dedications or restorations of the Temples G-d made it known that He would dwell their in their midst, not just because they had built a complex but because He dwells with His people forever. (compare Exodus 25:8, 29:45; Zachariah 2:14-15; I Kings 6:13; Ezekiel 43:9)

We need to understand that this commandment regarding building of the Tabernacle and the Temple instruments is not one of, “Build it and He will come.” Instead it is more like, “Build it, so that you will know that He is with you.”

As we look back at our ancestors and consider the context of their way of worship, perplexed as to what motivated them to show their adoration for the Divine in this way, we need to understand that all people have an innate drive to bring holiness and wholeness into the world. We all desire to make things better than they are, to bring a purposefulness and intentionality to things in our world. And this was their way of showing it. In the chassidic, mystical work of the Tanya we find the following statement made:

Now it is so for every person, |

and the purpose of all His creations |

and the creation of all the worlds, |

to make a dwelling place for |

G-d in this lower world.” |

זה כל האדם 

ותכלית בריאתו 

ובריאות כל העולמות 

עליונים ותחתונילהיות 

לו דירה זו בתחתוני

Likkutei Amarim – Tanya, Chapter 33

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe

On a fundamental level, everything in the universe was created to be an embodiment of godliness. The kabbalists teach us that the universe was created as a space in order for the Divine to be manifest. The universe is a canvas, and the elements in it are materials we can artistically fashion to show the glory of the Divine. And each of us people, our desire is to bring completion and holiness to this world. Us living things have an internal drive to be partners in this act of creation, taking the basic elements of the world and fashion them into a display of higher order. That is just what we are meant to do.

Though we do not have a Temple that stands before us, we need to be aware that the Divine Presence does dwell among us. And this Torah displays many other ways, aside from just the commandments of building a Tabernacle, for how we can manifest holiness in this world. We can take the basic elements of everyday life and raise them to holiness through completing mitzvot. We can take the ordinary things of life and impart spirituality and intention into them, and thus allow holiness to dwell in our homes and lives. In this way we can cause Hashem to dwell among us.

What type of contribution are you willing to make today in order to bring godliness into the world?

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Parshat Beshalach (2013)


Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Where can you point to G-d in your life?

Torah_shema_yad-2-softOne the greatest pleasures I have in my life is to be able to work with newly religious people and converts. Often times I find myself instructing those that have come home to Judaism because of their infinity with its message of justice and on account of the intellectual rightness of the faith. But many of these people come after seeking answers in the arms of other religions and dogmas, even people who followed personality cults or evangelists. Sometimes I have found people confiding in me that these religious experiences seem much more emotionally appealing than Judaism and it’s correctness. This often comes to the surface when people experience low points in life, and it causes a crisis of faith.

One of the most notorious of cases to show for this in the pop culture is that of “Dr Laura” Schlessinger who fell into obscurity a decade ago. She was well-known for converting to Conservative and then Orthodox Judaism. She was arguably the most notorious convert of her day, often using that as a basis to justify her moralizing as a talk-show host. However when she began to face difficulty and her stability unwind she not so quietly turned her back on Judaism, citing it as cold and rule driven. She then went on to praise the Evangelical Christians that extended themselves to her in the wake of her downfall. She did not care what was intellectually right in the end, she instead was very much preoccupied with being disturbed that G-d was so far off in Judaism. She admired the thoughts of Christianity because it had a personal god with a human name, she spoke of envying that closeness. G-d forbid that I gloat in this woman’s pain, however I use her as well-known example of someone who has put a lot on the record to say about how seemingly impersonal Judaism is. (see “Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion” at The Daily Jewish Forward)

She seems to have unsophisticatedly asked the question that many people often ask when they find themselves at an impasse with their Jewish faith, is the G-d of Judaism so transcendent that He has no virtues of closeness to us? I want us to answer that question for ourselves today. Where is G-d when we need to find Him in our lives? Also, why do we tend to depersonify our Judaism; why do we make G-d above being a person and push aside any personality in our faith?

In this parsha we have a perfect verse that would make a perfect statement to summarize the Jewish faith:

“And Israel saw the great hand

which Hashem used upon the Egyptians

and they feared the L-rd

and they believed in Hashem,

and in Moses His servant.”

| Vayar Yisra’el et-hayad hagdolah

| asher asah Hashem beMitzrayim

| vayir’u ha’am et-Hashem

| vaya’aminu b’Hashem

| uveMoshe avdo.

Genesis 14:31

This verse has all the richness and meaning as that of the Islamic Shahada (“This is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet…”), a paramount statement of faith for them. These are epic words.

This is the perfect moment in Judaism, here at the height of Israel’s salvation. The patriarchs had pointed forward to this moment, and all the prophets would look back to it as bearing witnesses of G-d’s greatness in crushing injustice and showing mercy towards His people. The enemy Egyptian army is vanquished under the waves and the people have gone free. Seeing all these miracles the people believed in G-d and in His prophet.

But strangely in the commentary of this verse we don’t see any great praises of Moses our Teacher, peace be upon him, instead it passes him right over. We have a phenomenal statement, but what does Rashi do with this text? Instead of taking a moment to pine upon Moses, our ultimate teacher, we instead see him distancing himself from a personality cult. He goes even one step further by choosing to take a moment to challenge anthropomorphism – the description of G-d by human characteristics. In this verse of commentary our tradition goes even above and beyond the tone of even our closest common faith, Islam, which also abhors physical descriptions of G-d as well. Our tradition stands out as even more abstract than that when it chooses to sideline even our prophet, maybe even more than he need be. At times we seem even cold and detached in comparison to Muslims when it comes to our faith. There is not much that we as Jews widely honor aside from our ancestors.

In the commentary for this verse Rashi makes the point that we are only talking figuratively about G-d throughout this story. When we say that G-d used His hand on Egypt we are saying that G-d extended His might towards Egypt. We aren’t saying that G-d has any actual hands that He extends towards anyone. When we speak of G-d’s hand we mean that G-d directs His might towards a certain direction.

Rashi also comments that when we say G-d is an “ish milchamah / a man of war” (Exodus 15:3) we need to tweak the way that we think about that. What we are trying to say that G-d is a warrior, we are not saying that G-d is a man. We are just using descriptions. G-d is not any one thing, nor does He have physical characteristics. Rashi makes this point several times throughout his commentary here.

Most sensible monotheists would agree with these statements. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that us Jews are often overly intellectual even in the most passionate of moments. We are at the pinnacle moment of the Exodus drama, where G-d can be seen in all His awesomeness. This is where Moses really shines. Capturing this moment made Charlton Heston infamous, for creeps sake! And instead of reveling in this glory for our G-d and prophet, Rashi chooses to talk about what G-d isn’t. Talk about anti-climactic.

The reason why is because our rabbis know how this story ends. Right now we have the people saying that they believe in G-d and Moses His prophet because of all the frightening deeds He did in saving them, but soon they will have forgotten about them and worship the Golden Calf. This stain always hangs over the story, even from the beginning.

We often ask ourselves how people could be of such little faith that they forget so quickly how amazing their G-d was and descend into idolatry. For me the reason appears revealed to us in this verse. It was not because of lack of belief, it was because of a strong belief that worked against them. They believed not just in G-d, but also in Moses. The had faith in Moses so much that the moment he disappeared and they assumed he was dead they found themselves lost. (see Exodus 32:1) Once Moses was no longer there for them there was left a vacuum in both physical and spiritual leadership. In disarray they almost naturally went down a path towards idolatry. They had nothing to connect to, so they fashioned for themselves a god out of their gold ornaments using the words, “Ayleh elohecha Yisrael asher he’elucha mei’eretz Mitzrayim / This is your god oh Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Or more literally these (ayleh) are your god. (see Exodus 32:4) When in a pinch and asked to show what they really think their G-d is they hold out their gold and declare that to be their true salvation.

Before we get too attached to anything or anyone our rabbis, even in middle of this awe-inspiring moment, choose to tone down the enthusiasm. They make the point that the nouns we use for G-d are irregular, because G-d is not a true noun. We can’t point to any one thing as being G-d, or any one person as being our guide towards G-d, because if we get confused we can start pointing at the wrong things.

But before we get there to that descent into error of the Golden Calf, here in this moment of glory of the Exodus story, we do get a pure glimpse of the Divine where all the people are able to perceive G-d. Moses and the children of Israel begin to sing the Shirat haYam – the Song at the Sea. Lost in celebration they become enraptured in praise of G-d. They sing out:

“I will sing to Hashem

for He is highly exalted,

horse and rider he hurled into the sea.

Yah is my strength and my song

and He has become my salvation;

this is my G-d!

And I will make Him a habitation,

G-d of my father,

and I will extol Him.”

| Ashirah l’Hashem

| ki-ga’oh ga’ah

| sus verochevo ramah vayam.

| Ozi vezimrat Yah

| vayehi-li lishu’ah

| zeh Eli

| ve’anvehu

| Elohei avi

| va’aromemenhu.

Exodus 15:1-2

As I stated, all of biblical and Jewish history points to this one moment in history. This is G-d’s ultimate display of glory. Witnessing this the children of Israel sing their song of praise, a liturgical hymn that we sing in our prayers to this day. Rashi in his commentary makes the most interesting commentary on this:

This is my Gd: He revealed Himself in His glory to them [the Israelites], and they pointed at Him with their finger [as denoted by זֶה (zeh), this]. By the sea, [even] a maidservant perceived what prophets did not perceive. — [from Mechilta]”

זה אלי: בכבודו נגלה עליהם והיו מראין אותו באצבע, ראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראו נביאים:

Rashi for Exodus 15:2

I find this absolutely fascinating, especially in light of where the commentary of Rashi has gone so far. Rashi has gone far out of his way to make sure that we understand that G-d is not corporeal nor has any semblance of actual physicality. He harps over and over again on this point, that the voice of the Torah is just being figurative. And then he throws this zinger at us, he has the Israelites literally pointing at G-d with their finger! It may seem odd why he goes there, but if we consider it the word zeh (this) – it has the same tendency to come with a hand motion as the word ayleh (these). Rashi says that in this one moment of glory people were able to perceive G-d so intimately, so closely that they were literally able to point toward Him.

We need to ask ourselves, what is that Rashi means by this? If we are not talking about a physical form, as G-d cannot be described as any one thing or thoroughly by anyone, how is it that they are able to point towards G-d? I believe the answer is found in the words “vayehi-li lishu’ah / and He has become my salvation” that precede their point and exclamation “zeh Eli / this is my G-d.” When they pointed to G-d they had no form to call attention to, the only evidence was His deeds of salvation. They pointed towards what G-d had done for them and they exclaimed “This is my G-d.” They were declaring if one wanted to see their G-d, the only thing they needed to see, in fact the best demonstration of Him was through the things that He has done for them.

My friends, when we consider our Jewish faith I want us to stop judging it in light of the characteristics of other religions. We need to not be disturbed that G-d may be lofty and abstract in our faith. Yes, we worship a G-d that we cannot depict in any manner and whose Name we cannot even intone. There may seem like there is very little personal comforts of religion, it demands a higher maturity of us that not always so comforting. We are called to faith in a way that may seem as sobering as telling a child there is no Tooth Fairy. But it doesn’t have to be that way for us.

We aren’t saying that G-d cannot be seen in our lives, or that G-d cannot be found. No instead our faith is so dynamic that we can even point towards our G-d. But the way we identify with our G-d is by pointing towards His salvations that He has made in our lives, in what He has done for us. This faith is not impersonal, that is a very personal type of faith. G-d is very close, and very easy to be found, we can point to Him in all the trials of life that we have been saved from. We can point to Him being a strength for us in our times of total weakness! Our faith is not dispassionate, quite to the contrary, we have such a dynamic faith when asked to show evidence for our G-d we can just use our lives as examples and say, “See….this… this is my G-d.”


Parshat Bechukotai (2012)


Parshat Bechukotai (2012)
Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”


And you will flee when no one is pursuing you” (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם, Lev. 26:17) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

With this weeks parsha we are completing the Book of Leviticus. This year this parsha is paired together with Parshat Behar as a double-parsha. This entire book of Leviticus has been related to the establishment of the Miskhan (the Tabernacle) and detailing the service and expectations that was laid upon the people of Israel. As we start this parsha we notice that all of a sudden the tone switches from talking about the responsibilities of the nation, to stating what the benefits and consequences of adherence to the Torah’s commandments are.

This parsha is quite short, less than two complete chapters in it’s entirety. And the aliyot (the individual readings) are also quite short as well. Normally people would be thrilled that they have a shorter section to learn to lein (Yiddish meaning cantillation, read in its proper melody from the Torah scroll), but this is not an easy reading. The sections that detail the curses and judgments are most often read by the most competent reader, because according to our tradition it is to be delivered in a very different fashion from any other Shabbat Torah reading; it is to be read in a whispering tone, and as quickly as possible. We read it this way in order to not arouse or incite judgment, and so that we do not dwell on negativity.

Though the differences become apparent even before the reading begins. Normally being called up to the Torah is the greatest honor one can have. In our tradition we are so repulsed by the idea of leveling judgment against people that the person who is called up to read these sections of curses does not allow themselves to be customarily called up by name to honor them for their reading. No matter how “qualified” one is in Torah learning, we are never to take pride in being associated with the calamity that befalls someone for their wrongdoing.

The world-over it is the general custom of the religious leaders to make themselves famous for preaching fire and brimstone. People literally yelling from the rooftops, with great satisfaction in themselves, all the ways that one can be harmed and punished. But here when it comes to delivering the tragedy of punishment we as Jews are not allowed to raise our voices, nor are we to linger upon the suffering of the sinner. We discuss it because we must, but G-d forbid that this happen to someone. We mildly and quickly get through this task as we take no joy in it.

The difficulty of reading this parsha though really is more in the message, more so than being an issue of skill. It is especially difficult for the Jewish people because it really does seem to begin going through a point-by-point presentation of the sufferings Jews have experienced, even though this was written long before the expulsions and persecutions in exile.Sadly we know the Torah is right about this because it really happened, and so recently in our history that it pains people greatly still to this day in a very raw way. These things can happen, it’s a tragic truth. In light of this the discussion then naturally seems to lead to asking “why,” instead of debating the “if.”

But if we are to answer the question that is expressed as “Why did this happen? Did we really deserve this?” we must first deal with an even less sophisticated question that goes, “How can a good G-d do this? Why did He make this happen?” It’s almost seems like a fair question because the horrors in this parsha are so extreme it seems inconceivable that G-d would do these things to His people. The key error lies in the understanding of the words “do” and “make,” implying such calamity is the work of G-d.

But unsophisticated questions tend to demand equally ill-formed answers. The way the gentile nations have generally answered this question is by turning to polytheism, good gods do good and bad gods cause evil. Their attempts at monotheism are still even colored through this perception, in which evil is personified in “the devil.” However, as Jews we are not permitted this luxury of dualism. We are challenged to have to deal with G-d’s role in all this because the scriptures clearly tell us that both good and evil are caused by Him alone. We read in book of Isaiah the profound declaration:

“From the rising of the sun and from the west

there is nothing besides Me

I am Hashem, there is nothing else.

I form light and create darkness,

makes peace and creates evil;

I Hashem do all these things.”

| “Mimez’rach shemesh umima’aravah

| ki-efes bil’adai:

| ani Hashem v’ain od

| yotzer or uvorei chosech,

| oseh shalom uvorai ra;

| ani Hashem oseh kol eyleh”

Isaiah 45:6-7

Traditional Judaism has always maintained this understanding of G-d, because logic naturally dictates that if G-d is omnipotent (all powerful) then everything must be ordered by Him alone. However, orthodoxy is neither naïve nor trite. It does not place G-d in the position of a tit-for-tat enforcer nor does it over simplify the nature of individual suffering, our tradition can’t because the scriptures do not suggest this at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it really is basic Judaism; but something I can go into volumes with. Verse 7 above is paraphrased as part of our liturgical reading of the morning, it is said daily as part of the blessings to the Shema (our most holy confession). We recognize that G-d creates the world daily. G-d is active in the world, not in just some distant point in history but still today and everyday renewing the act of creation. However this is a distinct difference between what is formed and made, and that which is merely created. In the void He formed the world, fashioning it; G-d made the universe. And when He formed it He created it in a balanced state of fullness and light, He provided everything that was needed to sustain that world. However, evil and woe are like darkness. They not necessarily a thing, it’s the void and aftermath that is left as a result in the breakdown of the proper function and order in our lives. Other times its just a the absence of the good stuff getting to that place yet. There are two lessons in that: 1) that just like life has good times, there are also bad times, 2) woe and hardship are not a formulated response, but merely the unfortunate result of things not going according to ordered plans.

G-d as creator made us to function well, under good and optimum circumstances just like any good designer would. G-d created this world as a brilliant form of craftsmanship, with all the features and accessories needed to help us get the job done. For us to be mad when life breaks-down is like being upset with a manufacturer because our plans for using their product didn’t pan out or we just didn’t use it properly. It isn’t realistic or proper for us to look at the world that way. The responsibility of the Divine was to give us the best chance in real situations, not to vow to save us against from every possible annoying fluke.

When we comprehend that, then we can be a bit more adult in our ways of looking at the words “do” and “make.” G-d doesn’t do anything to us, any more than He makes us do anything; those are very childish words if we use them in this tone. Instead G-d takes responsibility in being the creator who created us to function best when in line with His instructions. He should not been seen as a manufacturer who is designing a product to blow up in our faces at the first wrong step.

So in this mentality G-d nonetheless takes responsibility. He stands behind His product, disclosing what it takes for it to perform properly and warning us of how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because things most certainly do have a habit of going wrong at some point, that is the nature of life.

Troubleshooting Life

Do you need to troubleshoot life? I know I do, and often. Any of you who have ever worked for a help-desk know troubleshooting skills not just requires the knowledge of the complex, but also attention to the subtle. The range of what someone points to as “wrong” can span from a total malfunction to merely just someone’s baseless dissatisfaction.

One of the first tedious parts of troubleshooting is to have to go over the instructions. Are we doing everything that we are supposed to do in order to get the appropriate results? Our text explains to us as follows:

“And if you do not listen to Me,

and do not do all these commandments,

and if you grow tired of My orders

and if you loath My laws

so that you will not do all My commandments

and thus break My covenant,

after that I will make this to happen to you…”

| V’im lo tish’mu li;

| v’lo ta’asu et kol ha mitzvot ha’eileh

| v’im bechukotai tim’asu

| v’im et mishpatai

| tig’al nafshechem l’vilti asot et kol mitvotai

| l’hafrecheim et briti,

| Af ani ei’eseh zot lachem

Leviticus 26:14-16a

The Torah warns us if we do not abide by all these ways we are breaking our “terms of service agreement.” If we do this we are gonna break our lives! No really, look at the text again. It first wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing.

Then the text goes into explaining what to look out for, the warning signs of malfunction:

“I will appoint upon you panic;

with consumption and fever,

and I will completely destroy your sight,

and make you depressed,

and you will sow your seed in vain,

and your enemies will eat it.

|

And I will set my face against you

and you will be defeated before you enemies;

and you will flee

when no one is pursuing you

| V’hifkadeti aleichem behalah

| et ha’mishachepet ve’et hakadachat

| m’chalot einaim,

| umedivot nafesh;

| uz’ra’tem larik zar’achem

| va’achaluhu oi’veichem.

|

| V’natati panai bachem,

| v’nigaf’tem lifnei oi’veichem;

| v’radu vachem son’eichem

| v’nas’tem v’ain rodeif at’chem

Leviticus 26:16b-17

The first troubles that the Torah presents us with as signs of judgment are subtle and mild, but can easily be mistaken for something else all together.

This first wave of curses is very perplexing and even troublesome. What are we saying about G-d; that He causes us to have panic, depression and such? Are we saying that G-d takes control of our emotions in order to wreck them? And these inflictions, are we suggesting that G-d causes illness in us?

In our tradition the points of free-will and the fairness of such a course of actions is not even an issues to grapple with. The Rambam interprets Midrash Rabba concerning creation to be surmised in the idea that “only good descends from G-d above.” (Rambam, Guide For The Perplexed, III:X; concerning Midrash Rabba Chapter 1, p. 266). When G-d creates He makes everything good, just as we read in the creation story the continual phrase is used “and G-d saw all that He created and behold it was good.” And we firmly believe G-d does not give illness nor does He impose on our emotions. How can it be that here we have G-d being described as causing both physical and mental inflictions?

The Rambam, as a physician, gave us a unique perspective in how to interpret this. In fact he gives us one of the only interpretations from among the classics that we have to examine. That is not to say the commentators didn’t deal with these verses, they wrote lengthy commentary on these sections. However, they could only give us a description of what the symptoms were. The Rambam was more concerned with what the cause was. As a physician he realized that in order to bring remedy we must first recognize the cause, as a condition is not merely a set of symptoms that need to be alleviate. The symptoms of illness are merely a reflection of the extent to which disease has advanced.

As pointed out the world was created “good,” and in fact when all the living creatures were created He declared that everything was “tov me’od / very good;” (Genesis 1:31). He created life and the world good, and then some. Nonetheless as we have learned from Isaiah, G-d does say that He causes ra – harm, evil, and calamity. However, as the Rambam point out early on in the Guide, things such as good and evil are only descriptions in relations to something. He says this is like saying “round” or “flat.” Not either physical property is good or bad necessarily, it is just a description of how we perceive something. How it looks to us. Such words are very similar in meaning and relation to the terms emet and sheker; true and false. It’s a description and qualification, not a judgment or characterization.

The Rambam explains to us that this similarly can also be applied to the words oseh and bara; makes and created. When G-d created to world He created, meaning he made something from nothing. There was nothing, no universe or anything to function. Then He created the world purposefully, everything He made has a function. He points out that that G-d also created things such as the mouth, eyes and ears so that we can speak, see, and hear. Though the Rambam points out the following verse to demonstrate his philosophical view of what happens when something goes wrong in this natural world:

“And Hashem said to him:

Who places a mouth in man,

or who makes one mute,

or deaf

or see

or blind;

I Hashem.”

| Vayomer Hashem elav

| mi sam peh la’adam

| o mi-yasum ilem

| o cheresh

| o fike’ach

| o iver halo

| anochi Hashem.

Exodus 4:11

The Rambam explains that this verse teaches that each of the body parts were created for their function. That when the function is withheld it merely means that the body part doesn’t work properly, we don’t jump to the odd suggestion that a person must not have a mouth if they can’t talk, or eyes if they can’t see, nor ears if they can’t hear. But that G-d as maker of those body parts is the one who takes responsibility for the issue as He is he only thing in the universe, He is solely its creator, there is no one else to blame; He is responsible by default and does not shirk that in any way. Then He sums it up with “I am Hashem,” its okay to hold Me responsible; I’m big enough to take it.

But if we consider it, the above mentioned maladies are examples of things that are not necessarily inflictions, but withholding of an appropriate function; example, He gave a mouth but didn’t give the speech. We need to see the terrible things mentioned in our parsha as a mere result of G-d withholding blessing – and not necessarily imposing a causative and active role of punishment. He just isn’t providing what we need for our lives to work right. Nachon, got it?

Not Being Run Out: Sometimes we run from blessing, instead of being driven

I know I have kept you for a long study, with me ranting on. But it is very important for us to look at the symptoms, the characteristics of these maladies caused by us not living properly and according to the rules set out for our lives in Torah. And by looking at them we will also see that they are really things that have their root more in us than in G-d. They are:

Panic (בֶּהָלָה) – literally fear, and sudden terror. Panic and terror will begin to consume you. One will begin to be overcome by fear and frenzy.

Consumption (הַשַּׁחֶפֶת) – literally wasting disease and emaciation. One’s health looks swept away, they being to look anguished. Rashi says this means consumption of the face, so that one begins to look sad in the face due to wasting. People often used this term historically to describe illnesses like tuberculosis, wasted away and pained to that point.

Fever (הַקַּדַּחַת) – this is very simple to understand, it simple means fever, and the results of sever illness like malaria. But the Radak tells us this can be understood as “fire in the bones;” that is how intense the effects are. Rashi also sees this connotation, and says furthermore it can be understood as being fired up to the point one is enraged, and furious (citing Deut. 32:22) The fire inside, be it in our body or emotions, burns too hot and to our detriment. Fever like fury can overwhelm a person to the point of an overwhelming trembling and loss of control over their functions and composure.

Destroy your sight (מְכַלּוֹת) – G-d will allow our outlook to be destroyed. (Rav Hirsch) We begin to experience impairment of our faculties. As we look into our future all we will see is uncertainty and doubt, which leads to the next infliction…

Depression (וּמְדִיבֹת) – we will become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness (Rav Hirsch). We will be overcome by debilitating depression and sorrow.

The parsha continues on describing other things that are less easily understood as being rooted in our own defect; that we will sow in vain, our enemies will reap from our hard work instead of us. But in the last clauses of verse 17 we see G-d does have a undeniable hand in all of this, because He sets His attention towards us and yet we are defeated by our enemies. G-d watches on, as we fall into calamity; not coming to our aid.

But before we get carried away and try to relieve ourselves of responsibility the Torah continues and shows a truly tragic truth of what happens when we live a life outside of Torah blessing, we aren’t run out from blessing; quite to the contrary.

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

In the end, the yeridah – the descent and fall into bondage and foreign oppression is of our own doing. Often times we aren’t carried away, no one forces us out of a place of peaceful living; we are so haunted and hunted by our avoidance of our Torah responsibilities that we run from ourselves until we find we are not longer free to return on our own terms. It further describes this type of paranoia in verses 36-37, that we will become overwhelmed by insecurity, that even the rustling leaves will send us running in fright, like being chased by a sword though no one is there; that we are so overcome by our invisible fears that we, and those that accompany our descent, stumble over each other; running from insecurities rooted in our own conscience.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Though there are all kinds of unspeakable things displayed for us as hardships for improper living and not honoring the Torah, G-d still holds out to us a hand of mercy. Though we might get worse, and worse, and worse yet the more we run from ourselves; in the end G-d says that He will not just write us off. No, instead He declares that no matter how far we run, He is intent on setting us right in the end; not to leave us ultimately to our disrepair.

“Yet even after all that, even

when they are in the land of their enemies

I will not reject them, nor abhor them,

nor grow tired of them

and then break my covenant with them –

for I am Hashem, your G-d

|

But I will for their sakes remember

the covenant of their ancestors,

whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt

in the sight of the nations,

that I might be their G-d:

I am Hashem.”

| Ve’af-gam-zot

| biheiotam be’eretz oiveihem

| lo-me’astim velo-ge’altim

| lechalotam

| lehafer briti itam

| ki ani Hashem Eloheihem.

|

| Vezacharti lahem

| brit rishonim

| asher hotzeti-otam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| le’einei hagoyim

| lihiot lahem le-Elohim

| ani Hashem

Leviticus 26:44-45

Though G-d does not write us off, and promises to ultimately grant redemption to use all, liberating us eventually; it does not necessarily say this life, though. It is true that all Israel has a share in the world to come (Pirkei Avot). But ignoring Torah has consequences. G-d does not cast people out of His kingdom for their humanity and faults; He will make a place for us all, in a way only He understands. It will come about by Him remembering His promise and the merit of our ancestors. This should comfort us. But on the other hand we should be a bit saddened by this explanation; because the truth is the suffering and being run amok could end at any time if we just decided to remember His covenant and the meritorious lives displayed by our Jewish ancestors.


Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim (2012)


Parshat Acharei – Kedoshim
Leviticus 16–20

Goats or Pan: Hairy interpretations of the naturalist vs. the phantasmal

pan-also-known-as-faunus-pipes-and-dances-with-nymphs-and-satyrsSometimes biblical interpretations clash when it comes to explaining certain terms in the scriptures, namely because of one’s preconceived world view. Very rational people will see everything as something naturally occurring and a person given to belief in the supernatural can tend to see all things as providence. I tend to be somewhere in the middle, not completely given to either school of thought. I think most of us are. Now, I do have many friends that are very prone to loving fantastical interpretations of the Torah. Interestingly, not all of them are necessarily religious people or partial to the miraculous. They just like the thrill of keeping the story larger than life.

Most often this becomes an issue when people have to translate the unknown or ambiguous. Believe it or not the supernatural sounding interpretation usually wins out. We have no better example of that than in the over-killed discussion of “the sons of G-d conceived with the daughters of men,” and the whole nephilim debate. (see Genesis 6) One of the others is found here in this parsha. The Torah reads:

“And they shall not sacrifice anymore

their sacrifices for the Se’irim

after which they still stray after;

this is an eternal statute

for them, and for [all their] generations.”

| Velo-yizbechu od

| et-zivcheihem lase’irim

| asher hem zonim ach areihem

| chukat olam tihieh-zot

| lahem ledorotam.

Leviticus 17:7

We aren’t exactly sure what the term se’irim means. But for the most part this is translated as demons, as is seen in the King James Bible and is thus the most widely received understanding. Even bible skeptics will insists on this translation, in the same manner they insist the nephilim references only be understood in light of the folklore simple because it’s juicy material; they rather debate with stuff fit for Ancient Aliens as its a better straw-man, easier to quash than serious scholarship.

What is perplexing to some very rational minded Jews is that this understanding is not without precedence even in our own tradition. This is the understanding of the Chazal – our rabbinic sages from the age of the prophet Ezra until the end of the 7th century that formulated the foundations of Jewish tradition. This in agreement of the midrash, Sifra, and the opinion of geniuses such as S’forno (9th century). So it should come as no surprise that even Rashi holds by this:

LeSe’irim: to sheidim [Heb. demons]

as in “the se’irim dance there.”

(Isaiah 13:21)

לשעירם: לשדים, |

כמו, “ושעירים ירקדו שם:” |

(ישעיה יג כא) |

Rashi to Leviticus 17:7, 11th Century

Now the rationalists among us can find a alternative meaning presented to us by citing this same verse. Here it will be understood by our tradition to mean demons as well, that dwell in the ruins of a fallen city, encroached upon by the animals of the wilderness. And on this note the naturalist will point out that the se’irim are mentioned in the middle of a long list of desert animals; wild-cats, ferrets, and ostriches before it (Isaiah 13:21); then jackals and wild-dogs after it (Isaiah 13:22). It is therefore very logical for us to assume this is some sort of animal, there is nothing to suggest otherwise.

This would actually be a very logical assumption. It is also suggested by examining the word itself. Se’irim in their few references, just like the mere two references of sheidim in the Tanach, are always spoken of in the plural and without definition. But in the singular we get a obvious hint about the entomology; a sa’ir is a buck, a he-goat. Though we have a clear word for goat in Hebrew, אז – instead we find here in Leviticus the need to be very specific. Instead of merely referring at an animal by species it prescribes them by gender and stage of development. Whereas here in Parshat Acherie it uses the term sa’ir for a male-goat, earlier on in this book we will also see used the gender appropriate term for female-goats; in fact used in combination with a clear mention of the species of which animal we are talking about to prove the point:

“… and he shall bring his offering

a female-kid of the goats.”

| …vhai’va karbano

| s’irat izim

Leviticus 4:28

We could try to dig deeper for a linguistic understanding. However, in our attempts to simplify the language it becomes apparent to us that we are often talking about nicknames; not genus (species) or taxonomic qualities. However, nicknames just like classifications often lend descriptive hints to the subject at hand. Just like hares are so named because they are hairy even at birth, unlike their cousins the rabbits who are born hairless; so too in Hebrew are the goat’s so descriptively nicknamed. The root of the nicknames seir, seirim , seirah, seirat are given because they are hairy. As in the scripture:

“Look, Esau my brother is a hairy man

and I am a smooth man.

| Hain, Eisav achi ish sair

| vanochi ish halach

Genesis 27:11

When we look at this evidence and work our way backwards linguistically it seems like the issues is settled. The case is closed. Until we look at the scholarly translations of the Torah, again we turn to the JPS. Now note that Jewish Publican Society is the standard of Jewish academic scholarship. While giving a hearty helping of tradition it loves to wax poetic, but not as often at the expense of reason. So it is intriguing to some, and seemingly justifying to others, when the JPS translates our verse out for Leviticus 17:7 as:

And they shall no more sacrifice

their sacrifices

unto the satyrs,

after whom they go astray.”

וְלֹא-יִזְבְּחוּ עוֹד, |

אֶת-זִבְחֵיהֶם, |

לַשְּׂעִירִם, |

אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם: |

Leviticus 17:7 (JPS Translation – 1917)

What are we talking about when we use the word satyrs? We are talking about something like fawns (as in The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe), however more precisely this term goes all the way back to ancient Greece where the god Pan is described as being half-man, and yet half-goat on the lower half of his body. panfixPan being the god associated with nature, fertility and spring became so recognizable as symbolic of the ancient gods that he became the universal symbol of Greco-Roman romanticism several times throughout history. Interestingly this symbol has also been similarly associated with classical satanism (belief in devil worship, the concept of a personified evil as prescribed by religious dualism), as the satyr’s form is clearly unnatural and pagan. But given the options you would wonder why JPS would give such an exotic translation.

Truth be told, even though JPS does not mind saying they don’t know what the meaning is many times when the text is unclear, they too follow the rabbinic and midrashic tradition of interpretation. To some extent it is also true that they have tried to not make waves with the “Authorized Version” (meaning King James Bible) that English speakers were accustomed to use before it. But this choice here is in keeping with our tradition, and for this reasons not completely unfounded.

We will find another reference to the satyrs which also sheds some more light on the subject:

“For the Levites left

their open land and their possession,

and came to Judah and Jerusalem;

for Jeroboam and his sons cast them off,

that they should not execute the priest’s office

to Hashem.

_

“And he appointed priests

for the high places

and for the seir’im and the calves

which he made.”

כִּי-עָזְבוּ הַלְוִיִּם, |

אֶת-מִגְרְשֵׁיהֶם וַאֲחֻזָּתָם, |

וַיֵּלְכוּ לִיהוּדָה, וְלִירוּשָׁלִָם: |

כִּי-הִזְנִיחָם יָרָבְעָם |

וּבָנָיו, מִכַּהֵן |

לַיהוָה.|

|

וַיַּעֲמֶד-לוֹ כֹּהֲנִים, |

לַבָּמוֹת |

וְלַשְּׂעִירִים, וְלָעֲגָלִים, |

אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. |

2 Chronicles 11:15

There are two suggestions being made to us here; that they made sacrifices of seirim (goats) and calves. But not only that, that in the days of the revolt of northern Israel from the kingdom of Judah they rejected the religion of Israel and the Levitical priesthood, with the people once again degenerated into worship of idols of calves and goats; “asher asah” which they made, which they crafted.

This meaning might be news to most of us, and I admit it seems like I’m going out on a limb here, but its not if we really consider it for a minute. If we look at this verse from our parsha it tells us that the people are to no longer offer sacrifices unto the satyrsgoat beings. Not to just not stray after them, but “asher hem zonim ach areihem / after which they still stray.” How can they still be straying after this type of idolatry when we have never heard of it before in the Torah?

My suggestion is this, we actually have heard of it before, but indirectly. When before have we read in the Torah of people making an idol of an animal and then offering sacrifices before it? That’s right, the egel ha-zahav the golden calf. (see Exodus 32:4) Thought we don’t hear of the people worshiping and sacrificing goats before, especially to idols made in their likeness, it appears that the children of Israel did in fact do so or they wouldn’t have been prohibited from continuing to do so. Its not hard to imagine, they did exactly this for calves. The reason why we probably never hear of this before, is because the exodus story so far is trying to deal with primary topic at hand; that of removing the people from slavery, and removing the symbols of that slavery from their mindset in the wilderness journey. The symbol of the calf represented an obvious old way of thinking, but the goat less so. If we examine them both the insight enlightens us to the meaning of this verse.

In the case of the calf, it’s not so hard for us to understand why they worshiped it. The entire economy of the Egypt they left surrounded the calf. They were essential for use in labor; both construction and agricultural. They were essential to the diet of Egypt by producing not only meat but also dairy that was a much needed staple. So much was the economy and diet dependent on the calf that when Yosef interprets the dream of famine for the Pharoah his vision is in the form of cattle; both fat and lean, respectively representing years of fortune and famine. (see Genesis 41)

But there was more than just a secular mental connotation, the symbol of the calf was intertwined with the symbol of Hathor (and intern, Isis) – the mother goddess who carried the sun disk between her horns – she was a symbol of rebirth and fertility. According to their mythology, from this cow deity the Pharaohs would suckle nutrients and intern (in a trickle-down effect) these blessing and providence would flow to the people under him. For the Egyptian the calf was central in offerings for worship and in being worshiped. In worshiping the calf the children of Israel were resorting to the old ways of thinking, finding comfort in the old religion and mindset. This was the primary theme of the exodus story, that the children of Israel come out from under that both physically and mentally.

Now if we examine the Egyptian significance of the goat, we are not left without some pretty good examples of goat worship. In fact there was an entire cult centered around worship of the goat and the satyrs in the north Egyptian town of Mendes. There the satyr would become associated with the symbol of Zeus there as well, to whom they would adorn with the head and pelts of a ram. These associations will grow with the more north and the more to the present we come with our mythology (example, the mascot of Thor is the goat). But at the time period of the exodus this symbol of the goat is not yet synonymous with norther paganism.

It goes back to something older, and something they apparently came in contact with again once they reached the highlands of Sinai. You see, unlike in the case of the Egyptians the goat was the central economic currency and lifeblood of the Bedouins who traveled with their flocks of goats. Unlike Egyptians the Bedouin could not herd cattle on huge tracks land, without land they raised hearty animals they could keep on the move. You can’t push goats, but they migrate quite well. And when I say goats are hearty, I mean they are tough. They eat almost anything (don’t leave out a tin can or they might even eat that, really). They can even be outright mean. No matter how small their horns are, they can get you something fierce!

Its the fierceness of the goat symbol that seems to prevail, and in each incarnation going forth we are going to see a scary symbolic nature of this animal taking shape. The reverencing of goats does not stem from or lead to a gentle and nurturing concept of the divine. Instead the apparent reverence towards this concept of deity is going to be based on fear and terror. So much so that going on through out the books of the Neviim and the Ketuvim – the Prophets and the Writings – the symbol of the goat is going to be irreversibly intertwined with the symbol of devils and demons in folklore. This idea is compounded as Edom, the Greeks, the Romans, etc. all continue to be epitomized by the symbol of the goat; people who worshiped idols we do not mind calling false gods, and demons. We only need to look at the capriciousness and inhumanity of their gods to validate why we can so easily can call them devilish. So much has happened to the children of Israel since their days of simple and tranquil goat herders like Yaakov Avinu – Jacob our Father – that now at this point in history the goat is a symbol of fright.

Though there are among our sages those that say the reverencing of the goat in the mind of some people was not necessarily occultic idolatry, they suggests that the cult of the goats was just another way of people trying to connect to the spiritual for protection. (Sforno) In the same way the people didn’t necessarily worship the calf, they just used it as a medium to direct their worship towards the Divine (Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed); so too it was with the goat. This might hold some truth to it, because we do see this come up after the mentions of the different sacrifices that include the goat, including the atonement sacrifices of Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements. The symbols and elements of the holy worship of G-d became mingled with the fears and ferocity of the new desert experience. They reverenced it; but maybe a little too much, to the point that the new situation they were in reawakened a primitive fear that had be there under the surface for a while.

During this Omer period I hear a lot of people talking about getting over the tendency to “golden calf it,” to rely on our old comforts and ways of doing things that hold us back from really being free people. But I think its also important that we don’t try to “buck” our spirituality either; that we not give in to fear, fierceness and ferociousness that twists it around. Most certainly we shouldn’t give in to fear that makes us want to see something as ugly, harsher and more unnatural than it really is.


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