Tag Archives: Iconoclasm

Parshat Re’eh (2012)


Parshat Re’eh
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

The Place Where G-d Sets His Name: Why No Temple Yet?

Temple Mount with the presence of the restored Al Aqsa MosqueIn chassidut we learn that we are to live in the parsha; some weeks the message just meets up very nicely with current events. This is one of those weeks. I come into this week’s lesson having in mind the recent news that may suggest a new shift in religious experience for the Jewish people. It appears that for the first time within the context of the State of Israel a bill is being proposed that will allow Jews to be permitted to pray upon the Temple Mount. If passed and implemented this will break the long standing Muslim monopoly on worship in the site. This action comes to the forefront due to the assertion by foreign governments that the current baring of religious expression of non-Muslims is discriminatory. (see “Bill calls for Jewish prayer times on Temple Mount.” – Jpost ) The site is sacred to people of other faiths and they should also be permitted access. Yet we still await to see what will become of this. Are Jews attempting to build a Temple there? What does it mean for the site itself, and how does this play out for us when reading this situation through the eyes of Torah?

Many have wondered why it is that the Jewish people have permitted this dominance of Muslims over this site. Some can understand why in a secular state there might be little interest to dismantle the Muslim presence that holds the site, that is not the objective of a people’s state.

What is shocking to many is the religious reluctance to razing the mosque upon Har haBayit – the Mount of the House of G-d – and restoring it to its former glory once again as the Holy Temple of the Jewish people. After all, this is the most sacred site on the entire planet for us Jews, and only auxiliary in important to the other grandfathered religions that arose upon the foundations of Judaism. In fact the more Orthodox the person is, the more conservative one tends to be on the idea of seizing the Temple Mount, and the establishing of religious worship upon the site itself.

Warning from Cheif Rabbniate outside of Temple Mount Complex

Warning from Cheif Rabbniate outside of the Temple Mount complex

The simple reason is this, because we hold the site so sacred that we do not want to defile the sacredness of the place in our lowly condition. We may be politically liberated, but spiritually we are still in exile and will remain so until the coming of the Messianic Age; the future age of universal peace and stability. The more Orthodox a person is the more there is the sentiment that one must wait until it is established by Divine Will and not by force. Until then we keep going on with our business as usual, worshiping and making atonement through prayer in our synagogues through the sacrifice of our lips as spoken of by the prophets. (see Isaiah chapter 1)

Synagogue worship has a rich history dating back to our most ancient history. I need to point this out because most people think that the engagement of synagogue worship dates back only to the Greco-Roman period, where under exile and dispersement there was a system of congregational worship outside of the established Temple. This could not be further from the truth. This misconception comes from the fact that word synagogue is a Greek word (συναγωγή), however even the scholars tend to only think that worshiping in small, local sites could only date back to the Babylonian exile because it is in that context that we see the first use of the term in the Greek translations of the scriptures that references such congregations. This is also incorrect to us religious Jews. According to scriptures and the sages the basis of worship in a state of exile originated in the age of Moses; being taught to the Israelites on the outside boarder of the Promised Land, just opposite the Jordan before going into the Land. Also in this same speech he gives the a solution to what to do to establish a central religious site once they have settled.

Moses says to the Children of Israel:

“You shall not do

all that we do here today,

every man what is right in his own eyes.

For you have not yet come

into the resting place

or the inheritance

which Hashem your G-d

is giving to you.”

| Lo ta’asun

| kechol asher anachnu osim poh hayom

| ish kol-hayashar be’einav.

| Ki lo-vatem ad-atah

| el-hamenuchah

| ve’el-hanachalah

| asher Hashem Eloheicha

| noten lach.

Deuteronomy 12:8-9

Now what does this have to do with communal worship in dispersed Israelite communities? It might not seem apparent to us because most of us are used to hearing long speeches on this text, but taken out of context. Most often its ripped from the rest of the text as the more fundamentalist voices twist it around to call for the establishment of a religious state upon the basis of a Jewish majority. These extremists say that we cannot allow people any longer to just to do what ever they see fit now that we occupy our land, we need to live in a theocracy. Odd, considering they will wait for Mashiach for the Temple for not for formation of a halachic state based solely on Jewish religious law. That is not what it’s saying for us to do, at least not on the surface. So what does it plainly mean? For our answer we turn to our regular source for p’shat (a simple, surface, straightforward understanding), Rashi:

You shall not do

all that we do [here today…]:

referring to that above

‘For you are crossing the Jordan…’”

(Deut. 11:31)

לא תעשון |

ככל אשר אנחנו עשים וגו‘: |

מוסב למעלה |

על כי אתם עוברים את הירדן וגו‘: |

(דברים יא, לא) |

Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:8

Unless you know the Torah text very well, you might not see what he is getting at. What Rashi is saying is that this verse can only be understood in the context of the previous verses, starting above. So we are forced to roll back our reading in this parsha a little bit to see the full context:

At the start of the verses leading up to this, beginning with chapter 11 verse 31 we see that what is being said going forward is in the context of the people entering and permanently setting the land; to possess it and to dwell in it. That is key, not just posses it, but to also live in it. Once this happens the nation of Israel is to keep all the statutes and ordinances of the Torah that were given by Moses. (v.32) Now with be beginning of chapter 12 (even though this is all one actual paragraph, there is no break in our Hebrew text; as usual, chapters are arbitrary), we see that a set of commands about to be given. When are they to follow through with these commands? When they occupy it and decide to live there the rest of their lives; when permanently settled. (12:1) What are the commands? Our text continues:

“You shall utterly destroy from all the places

where the nations worship therein,

those whom you shall dispossess;

[whether they worship] their gods

on the high mountains

or on the hills,

or under every leafy tree;

you shall tear down their altars

and smash their pillars

and their Asherah [trees]

you shall burn with fire

their engraved gods you shall cut

and obliterate their name

from that place.”

| Abed te’abdun et-kol-hamekomot

| asher avdu-sham hagoyim

| asher atem yorshim otam

| et-Eloheihem

| al-heharim haramim

| ve’al-hageva’ot

| vetachat kol-etz ra’anan.

| Venitatztem et-mizbechotam

| veshibartem et-matzevotam

| va’ashereihem

| tisrefun ba’esh

| ufsilei eloheihem tegade’un

| ve’ibadetem et-shmam

| min-hamakom hahu

Deuteronomy 12:2-3

So here Rashi is pushing us back to the beginning of the text, forcing us to recognize that this verse of Deut. 12:8 means that they were not to do all the things that were spoken of herein once we have settled. It may seem strange to us, but this is the definitive answer on the subject according to the most accepted of Jewish commentary. Does Rashi really have a point or is this mere circular logic for the sake of harmonization?

If we look at what is commanded we see that the charge of G-d is to purge the land of idolatry. This is the call of iconoclasm par-excellence. All the places of Canaanite pagan worship are to be destroyed. The sacred altars and obelisks are to be smashed to the ground, their sacred groves are to be chopped down for firewoods, engravings and sculptures of their deities are to be cut up, and the names of their gods are to be obliterated.

As pointed out a couple weeks ago, the only other religion that holds iconoclasm this close to their core is Islam (see Parshat Ve’etchanan 2012); the only classical religion that Judaism does not define as polytheistic or pagan. Honestly, culturally us religious Jews have more in common with Muslims that can be said concerning us and any other religious group. Is is true there is a historic disparaging of non-Muslims on their part that has tried relations at times, a typical chauvinism held by a larger group upon on a historically humbled group in their midst. And certainly the current political clash between Islamicists and the State of Israel has created a displaced attitude of anger towards all Jews. Still that does not shake the fact we are very similar and when placed together are better in relation (when not instigated) than outsiders appreciate. We understand each other’s ways, the cultural and religious gap is not that great. And at the heart of the values that we endear about each other is the purity of our religions in abhorring idolatry and iconography; that is so rare in this world that it puts us in a small club. In this respect, the Muslims are our brothers.

However we do vary in a certain respects, we are not permitted to have idolatry in our midst; within our homes and dwelling places. But it is not generally our way to campaign in order to destroy all forms of iconographical art in all places; only in places of our own possession and dwelling. What people do in their own communities and homes is their own business and doesn’t concern us. This also applies to the mosque upon Temple Mount. Our indifference to the mosque’s presence is because there is no form of actual idolatry; no sacred odalisques to encircle, no sacred trees to worship, no sculptures to adore, and nor offensive name therein. Our command is to destroy such things, but they do not offend the site in such a way.

Furthermore there is a direct prohibition against us making such a provocative move as dismantling that house upon Har haBayit. We are not permitted to destroy any authentic forms of religion. We are not permitted to desecrate the holy. This is explicitly laid out for in the next verse of our parsha:

“You shall not do likewise

to Hashem your G-d.”

| Lo ta’asun ken

| l’Hashem Eloheichem.

Deuteronomy 12:4

And herein lies a remarkable mitzvah, an astonishing commandment. One so notorious that even the commentary of Rashi doesn’t seem like it needs to point out the presence of the powerful mitzvah derived from this text. But this is the actual point that Rashi is getting at, being a master it seems to slip his mind to have to do the setup for this directive (as you see from my feeble explanation, it takes a lot of background thinking). But herein we are commanded that we are not to destroy, in any way as described above, any sacred object to the true G-d. We cannot deface true religion, or it is as though we are defacing G-d Himself. Even to the most conservative in our midst Islam is considered misguided at times, but surely not idolatry and we cannot claim so because they have no presence of any of these offending objects. To deface items, especially at this site specifically as we will come to see, would be considered a desecration of the Name of G-d.

We take this seriously, so seriously that based upon this our sages lay down the command that we are not permitted to destroy any ritual object used to worship G-d with (Sifre Devarim) or item that bares the Name of G-d. (Talmud Bavli Makkot 22a); we cannot destroy the sacred. So careful are we to not show disprespect that religious Jews do not destroy any item that was used in a ritual or even bares a reference to G-d. It is the reason religious Jews are of the custom to not even spell out the name of G-d completely unless necessary, so that we are not prone to show contempt for the sacred name if the item were to be trashed. So obsessive are us religious Jews that we don’t throw the most inconsequential items away that are associated with religion, we keep them so that they are buried intact as part of a communal cache of sacred objects to be disposed of respectfully; many times on the periphery of a Jewish cemetery. (we dealt with this in length also in Parshat Nasso 2011)

Now notice when this goes into effect, it happens once they cross over into the Land. And furthermore only after one thing happens: after G-d chooses a permanent place for them to come to. Our text states this as it continues:

“But only to the place

which Hashem your G-d shall choose

from all your tribes,

to set His Name there;

there you shall inquire after His dwelling

and come there.”

| Ki im-el-hamakom

| asher yivchar Hashem Eloheichem

| mikol-shivteichem

| lasum et-shemo

| sham leshichno tidreshu

| uvata shamah.

Deuteronomy 12:5

It may sound like the text is stuttering, but its merely emphasizing a point through explicit repetition. Once G-d chooses a spot you shall come there, to one place that G-d will choose; and only there. Interestingly Rashi does not identify this site, as most religionists would, as the Temple. He is true to the context of the text and it’s simple meaning, he points to something more immediate that pertains to the Israelites at hand. His commentary thus reads:

To his dwelling shall you inquire:

this is the Mishkan [Tabernacle]

at Shilo,:

לשכנו תדרשו: |

זה משכן |

שילה: |

Rashi to Deuteronomy 12:5

Now one might wonder why Rashi feels the need to point this far back; what moral lesson is there and how yet does this play into his seemingly odd commentary to our starting verse?

Verse 6 begins to bridge the gap. Once G-d has chosen a permanent place they are to begin to bring all their burnt offerings there. Everything from obligatory burn offerings, all the way down to the donations and tithes. Everything is to be brought there, the obligatory and the free-will offering. Things that were mandatory, and even things that they optionally took upon themselves could be brought there. (v.6) There they will rejoice in all their endeavors, and for every blessing they receive they will worship together as a family at that chosen place. (v.7)

Now it took us a long time, and I apologize for that. But we must consider the fact our rabbis wrote in amazing shorthand and with assumption we keep certain underlying thoughts in mind. But this gets us back to the commentary at hand. Lets jump back to the commentary of our central verse; Deuteronomy 12:8:

You shall not do

all that we do [here today…]:

referring to that above

‘For you are crossing the Jordan…’

(Deut. 11:31)

[What this means is] when you pass over

the Jordan

you are immediately allowed to sacrifice

on a Bamah [Heb. stage, platform]

all the 14 years of conquest and division.

But on the Bamah you shall not sacrifice

all that you sacrifice here today

in the Mishkan [Tabernacle]

which is with you and has been anointed

and is [therefore] fit to sacrifice therein

sin-offerings,

guilt-offerings,

vows,

and donations.

Whereas on a Bamah

you may not draw close [to the Most Holy]

rather [this is for] what is vowed or donated.

And this is [the meaning of]

‘every man [doing] what he deems fit’

vows and donations

that you donate

because you deem fit to bring them,

not because of any

obligation [imposed upon you];

only these may you offer up

on a Bamah. [Sifrei; Zev. 117b]”

לא תעשון |

ככל אשר אנחנו עשים וגו‘: |

מוסב למעלה |

על כי אתם עוברים את הירדן וגו‘: |

(דברים יא, לא) |

כשתעברו את |

הירדן |

מיד מותרים אתם להקריב |

בבמה, |

כל ארבע עשרה שנה של כבוש וחלוק, |

ובבמה לא תקריבו |

כל מה שאתם מקריבים פה היום |

במשכן, |

שהוא עמכם ונמשח |

והוא כשר להקריב בו |

חטאות |

ואשמות |

נדרים |

ונדבות, |

אבל בבמה |

אין קרב |

אלא הנידר והנידב. |

וזהו |

איש כל הישר בעיניו, |

נדרים ונדבות |

שאתם מתנדבים |

על ידי שישר בעיניכם |

להביאם ולא על |

ידי חובה, |

אותם תקריבו |

בבמה: |

Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:8; 11th century CE

If we skip forward in to our parsha we see that there are a bunch of sacrifices and offerings laid out. Ones that are obligatory, and ones that are optional. Among the optional ones can be anything from just a general donation of an item, to ritually fulfilling a religious vow of a personal nature; they didn’t have to, but they are taking this pious act upon themselves. Any of them can be offered at the tabernacle, and this is stressed. But only the optional ones can be offered elsewhere. For 14 years they are going to be raging war in order to conquer the Promised Land. During those years there is not going to be a set place to establish the Mishkan. During that time they will be permitted to establish Bamas; stages, and platforms. Here they may offer up their optional forms of ritual giving; but only the optional ones. It is not exactly like the situation that the children of Israel currently know (ha-yom; today). They currently have a tabernacle, that is taken up and down as they move around. When they settle it is erected and they offer there but they are permitted to eat from it anywhere within the confines of the encampment. But in the days to come the tabernacle would be dismantled. They people are not going to be able go about business as usual in a state of war. It is understandable that the people will still want to worship in the interim, and for this there is presented the option to offer up on a Bamah in their communities.

Now the Bamah sounds unusual to some readers, but its not exotic at all. We see it all the time if we go to shul; just usually pronounced with an Ashkenazi tinge, the bimah. What the word Bamah actually means is a stage or platform. We are referencing the elevated place; in olden days people placed altars upon them, today we place tables instead. Over time people have begun to call the gracious table the bimah; the table upon which we perform our highest mitzvah – the reading of the Torah – but in actually the real bimah is the elevated platform itself.

Thus we see that the origins of congregational worship outside of a central, national Temple being presented. People are allowed to congregate throughout their lands as they begin to settle, setting up bimahs were they are able to worship for free will. But the karbannot, the atoning sacrifices, we do not allow to be offered until that Most Holy Place is established. This is a precedent, that will be a model going forward for the people of Israel in a state of partial exile.

I cannot stress it enough, as this parsha continuously stresses that what we are and are not allowed to do. It warns us explicitly to not offer burnt offerings just any place we might set our eyes (if we look forward to verse 13). Instead we are to wait. In Rashi’s commentary he acknowledges that there is coming a day that the people are going to dwell in the Land and therefore feel obligated to do certain things, but until the establishment of that sanctuary comes they are to use this model.

Moses going forward in this parsha is going to warn that they have not yet found their resting place (v.9) that will not start to happen until they begin to go into the land, and will not be completed until they dwell security and they are given tranquility from their surrounding enemies in that Land. (v.10)

After that happens he says what will take place in order to establish a permanent place of worship; G-d will intervene Himself and choose to establish a sanctuary for His Name. Thus text reads as follows:

“And it will be, that the place

Hashem, your G-d, will choose

in which to establish His Name there

you shall bring all that

I am commanding you:

Your burnt offerings,

and your sacrifices,

your tithes,

and the separation by your hand,

and the choice of vows

which you will vow to Hashem.”

| Vehayah hamakom

| asher-yivchar Hashem Eloheichem

| bo leshaken shmo sham

| shamah tavi’u et kol-asher

| anochi metzaveh etchem

| oloteichem

| vezivcheichem

| masroteichem

| utrumat yedchem

| vechol mivchar nidreichem

| asher tidru l’Hashem.

Deuteronomy 12:11

This verse here, this is the actual core verse of this parsha. It is going to drive the message of the rest of the parsha. Everything is going to be defined by this drawing line, this is what changes it all. When G-d decides to establish His Name at one spot, they would need to bring out of mothballs all the things they were previously commanded. Everything will be offered there, both optional and obligatory. At a place where He will choose to set His Name.

But what we need to remember is that from the moment they stepped over the river, they were at war. Things would not be business as usual again and there would be no going back to the desert cult of the Mishkan. And this would be noted by Rashi. You see our starting text serves as a good jumping-off point, being about showing reverence for the sacred. Because this would be played out literally in a unique way as they would show reverence for even the Mishkan too from that point on, only erecting it and moving it after times of destruction. Both times the Mishkan was erected within the Land of Israel it was destroyed by evil men, both at Shiloh and at Nob. Only then was it broken down and moved. Rashi points this out that next it’s instruments came to Gibion but there they choose instead to offer on a Bamah, until it’s instruments finally came to the rest in Jerusalem – the ultimate place that G-d has chosen to establish His Name.

Second Temple ReplicaWhen we imagine the ultimate symbol of Jewish freedom, we see that culminating with free and unfeathered access for Jews and the entire world to a House of Prayer for all the Nations in the age to come (see Isaiah 67:7). We cannot help but imagine and long for that day when we can look to Har haBayit – the Mount of the Holy House – and actually see the future house in all it’s glory and splendor. But because we cannot show disrespect to the sacred site without removing the honored building that is already there we hold this hope close to our heart. We take no actions of hostility, the truly pious will not lift their hand against the Holy Hill.

In our hearts when we set our prayers towards Jerusalem we may see the beauty of Solomon’s Temple rebuilt in our minds. We may long and yearn for it. Some of us even talk obsessively about it. But remarkably to date there has not been anyone of true religious clout to attempt or even suggest the seizing of Temple Mount and the demolition of its sites. At best people can claim that among us there is a fanatical attempt to preserve the site as much as possible for archaeological and historical reasons; and the seemingly eccentric occupation of some with readying themselves for the day that a Temple is established by the King Messiah.

Rashi in his commentary also makes mention to the holy Temple in Jerusalem. As he draws the connection he makes mention to King David, not to Solomon his son who actually built it. He makes mention to David because it was him who in his great love for G-d and as a sign of his accomplishment of settling a kingdom decided to build a permanent house for G-d to be worshiped in, within the walls of his capital in Jerusalem. He had come to dwell in a fine home, therefore it was only right that their G-d should dwell in a fine house. However, zealous and romantic we must feel about this we most certainly couldn’t feel more strongly than King David felt. However he is like us in that he found himself in a precarious situation. One that prevented him for being able to accomplish this task. Solomon, the actual builder of the Temple in Jerusalem would reference back to his father and solemnly reverence David’s unactualized hopes for that Holy House as he inaugurated it:

“Now it was in the heart of David my father

to build a House for the Name of Hashem,

the G-d of Israel.

But Hashem said to David my father:

Whereas it was in thy heart

to build a house for My name,

you did well that it was in your heart;”

וַיְהִי, עִםלְבַב דָּוִד אָבִי |

לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת, לְשֵׁם יְיָ |

אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |

יֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶלדָּוִד אָבִי, |

יַעַן אֲשֶׁר הָיָה עִםלְבָבְךָ, |

לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לִשְׁמִי — |

הֱטִיבֹתָ, כִּי הָיָה עִםלְבָבֶךָ. |

I Kings 8:17-18

When David conquers his territory and settles his land he wishes to build the Temple in. This is his original idea. G-d says that the sentiment is nice, and its a good idea. G-d will surely allow it to happen, but it will not be him to do it. Solomon honors his father as his dream is actualized.

What was the reason that kept David from building the Temple? We all know this answer, every student of Torah does. We know it because David explicitly told his son Solomon the reason:

“But the word of Hashem

came to me, saying: You have shed blood abundantly,

and have made great wars;

you shall not build a house unto My name,

because you have shed much blood

upon the earth in My sight.

Behold, a son shall be born to you,

who shall be a man of rest;

and I will give him rest

from all his enemies round about;

for his name shall be Solomon,

and I will give peace and quietness

unto Israel in his days.

[Then] he shall build a house for My name.”

וַיְהִי עָלַי דְּבַריְיָ, |

לֵאמֹר, דָּם לָרֹב שָׁפַכְתָּ, |

וּמִלְחָמוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת עָשִׂיתָ: |

לֹאתִבְנֶה בַיִת, לִשְׁמִי |

כִּי דָּמִים רַבִּים, |

שָׁפַכְתָּ אַרְצָה לְפָנָי. |

הִנֵּהבֵן נוֹלָד לָךְ, |

הוּא יִהְיֶה אִישׁ מְנוּחָה, |

וַהֲנִיחוֹתִי לוֹ |

מִכָּלאוֹיְבָיו, מִסָּבִיב: |

כִּי שְׁלֹמֹה יִהְיֶה שְׁמוֹ, |

וְשָׁלוֹם וָשֶׁקֶט |

אֶתֵּן עַליִשְׂרָאֵל בְּיָמָיו. |

הוּאיִבְנֶה בַיִת, לִשְׁמִי |

1 Chronicles 22:8-10a

There are those such as myself that do have hopes and aspirations for the future Temple, may it be rebuilt quickly in our days. But like King David we find ourselves in a precarious situation. The conquest of our country was not miraculous. The Jewish people used warfare, just like every other people under hostility and tyranny to establish themselves a home. Not just any wars, some of the most notorious wars of the modern age. We like David did not acquire our land with clean hands, in ways sanctified by religious rhetoric. We fought a secular fight; one that soiled our hands with the blood of war, and even yet we are not completely secure within our true boarders.

Our hands are not clean. Like David, it is good and well that we have these hopes and sentiments, but it is best that we keep them in our heart and not put them to action. This is our sentiment, even that of the most modern Religious Zionist. There are those of us who feel like we should have the right of any person to go and pray at the site. But we are not trying to destroy the site and establish a new presence. We have no religious pretext for such a move. We await the coming of a new generation of peace, that can accomplish this task of reestablishing this House of Prayer for all the Nations without violence and bloodshed.


Parshat Va’etchanan (2012)


Parshat Va’etchanan
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

The Formlessness of our G-d: Not Making G-d in Our Image

I’m always fascinated by the discussion about what it means to be made in the image of G-d, as described in the creation story of Genesis. There we see the term used b’tzelem Elohim – that we are like an approximate copy or projection of the Divine; like a shadow, or a traced copy (צל; tzel). We are not exactly like G-d, say anatomically, but we are reflections of the Divine Nature. G-d is incorporeal and above any physical likeness, therefore we cannot say that we are exactly like Him. It’s very important that we remember this or else we get caught up in a simplistic way of thinking, where tzelem takes on another meaning in the depths of our minds even if we don’t know it; that of an idol. (צֶלֶם).

Here near the start of Moses’ final declarations being documented here in Deuteronomy he begins to give his final summary of their experiences in order that they reflect upon the lessons that they have learned. Right away he pauses and explicitly goes into detail regarding one notorious occurrence, that of the giving of Ten Commandments. He reminds of how G-d gave us the Torah:

And Hashem spoke to you

from out of the fire

you heard the sound of words

but saw no form,

there was only a voice.”

| Vayedaber Hashem aleichem

| mitoch ha’esh

| kol devarim atem shom’im

| utmunah einechem ro’im

| zulati kol

Deuteronomy 4:12

Then Moses begins to talk about the paramount moment of the giving of the “Aseret haDivrot / The Ten Commandments;” or as the Torah explicitly calls them here, the “Aseret haDevarim / The Ten Words,” or the ten sayings. (v. 13). Moses defines his mission to Israel as teaching them how to follow these laws and rules for when they cross over into the Promised Land they can live by them. (v.14)

But then here he circles back to deal with one point again. Moses says:

Watch yourself very well,

for you did not see

any type of image

on that day that Hashem spoke to you

at Horeb from out of the fire,

lest you become corrupt

and make you

an image that depicts the form of a figure,

[do not make] a form in the image of

a male or a female…”

| Venishmartem me’od

| lenafshoteichem ki lo re’item

| kol-temunah

| beyom diber Hashem aleichem

| beChorev mitoch ha’esh

| Pen-tashchitun

| va’asitem lachem

| pesel tmunat kol-samel

| tavnit

| zachar o nekevah…

Deuteronomy 4:16

I like most people begin to trail off at this point because we all know where this is going. Moses explains that we are not to make any icon in the image of an animal, bird, of things that prowl and swarm on land (creeping-things), or even fish of the sea. (v.17-18). Interestingly the only thing that is left out from this type of prohibition is the making of the form of angels and cherubs; but only by means of omission. (see Parshat Chukat 2012)

Quite honestly for the most part we as modern people don’t have a problem with the latter part of this prohibition. Iconography is something that is foreign to all but the most primitive of people. Even our modern experiences of outright object veneration is considered merely symbolic and has most often been embraced as some sort of revivalism of ancient pagan ways. Modern people just don’t worship any form of animal or beast.

But us modern people should not feel less convicted by this call to pure and depiction-less worship. If anything, more so. We are so advanced in our thinking we seem to realize the role that we play in the “animal world,” but still in this respect we seem to exclude ourselves. Most of us think it foolish for a person to worship a cow for instance, or a bird. We can clearly see that is not divine, and that the concept of deity transcends any single form or representation in creation. But many of seem to have no problem with imaging the Divine in the form of humans; after our own likeness, in the form of the human animal.

I don’t want to drivel on with too much philosophy, our great teachers such as the Rambam wrote extensively on the subject of the almost iconoclastic call of Judaism, one that only sees parallels in the Islamic empire of his age. I can not do justice to his great way of describing it through his body of work. Ones in which he greatly stresses those shared beliefs that we have with Islam, that G-d is above depiction and that even the use of anthropomorphisms are a compromise of the transcendence of the Divine Nature.

Sure we often have to use mundane and human terms when trying to explain G-d, but fully with the understanding that G-d is not a person and that we are at best estimating in terms we can relate to. But that’s it. We try to be careful to keep that understanding because if we stray too far we may begin to think that we understand the mind of G-d. We can begin to think that G-d thinks and acts like us.

People want a G-d they can relate to. So we use approximations, but they are bad descriptions of G-d’s nature. He is above being mad or angry; above being pleased or happy even. G-d is transcendent above all. But in order for us to understand sometimes the scripture have to use these types of terms to get the point across, using feelings and ways of relating we all have in us.

The problem arises when we try to think that we understand the way G-d “thinks” or “feels” by reason of deduction in own mindset and sentiments. We project our likeness on to G-d. And that’s really what it is often times, people who think they have the mind of G-d just find a lot of ways saying G-d thinks like them. And that is utterly ridiculous, and we need to avoid such tendencies. Besides it’s just odd for us to do so anyhow.

For example, many years ago I worked for the Reformed Jewish movement in America. Our interim-director at the time was someone who was quite a feminist. Even though I was Orthodox, I didn’t have problems with her feminism. But what I did find odd was that when leading in the liturgy one at an event she changed the liturgy of Psalm 136; “Thank the L-rd for He is good,” then she changed the well-known response to, “for Her kindness endures forever;” exchanging the masculine of the text to the feminine back and forth. The older people looked at each other with a look of, “Oh how interesting.” Us few younger people looked at each other like, “That’s really lame.”

In a way we all could understand why she did that. We were all Americans, and we understood the statement that she was making. We all grew up in a pseudo-Christian America where G-d is understood as an old man. I emphasize man, because the image of G-d as Father to us all is not just symbolic but quite literal to people in this nation. The Almighty is the father of their god, and thus their idea of G-d is a male with all the trappings that entails. Only recently have some of the brave in their ranks begun to embrace and teach upon the female-like characteristics of the Divine. The “sacred feminine” was purposefully excluded. Not just merely for their theological convenience, but also to accommodate the sexism of the age we were raised.

However inclusive her intentions were, it showed a childish compromise of our tradition on her part. You see, her attitudes in having to utilize this unusual and almost provocative wording were reactionary to an immature concept of Deity on the part of our host society. Her way of reacting to that was with a response that was just as childish, stepping away from thousands of years of understanding G-d and the godliness of Elohim as being above gender and therefore utilizing the Hebrew masculine, plural; which is normative for things that are of genderless or in crowds of mixed genders. G-d is not man or woman, therefore we use a term that is above that, a lofty tense that holds the weight of both. Her engendering of G-d seemed to most people to fall short of that lofty concept. It seemed silly in the company of obviously dedicated religious intellectuals, in an age where embracing of Hebrew was so normative even in the far-liberal circles that the language change seemed more like a gimmick and projection of her own psychological need to have a G-d she could relate to by making it out to be like her. Mostly because such a sentiment was typical for people of her persuasion in that respect, that if G-d could not be like her then she didn’t want to have any part of it.

One should understand that why this is silly to people like me is because we have already seen this in our history. In fact going on throughout the history of the Jewish people in the Tanach we are going to see other competitive expressions of deity arising many times. One of the most infamous would be the Ashtarot; the chief goddess of the bronze age in the middle-east, her name being in the feminine, plural; as opposed to our G-d who is the masculine plural, though gender inclusive. The reason is quite clear if we understand who she was, in that she was responsible for restraining the wrath of the male god Baal who was lower in the pantheon. She was the ancients response to a harsh patriarchal system. But she, would be a female that would come with all their cultural hangups of gender in the end, and would find herself competing time and time again with male challengers for the lead of the pantheon of gods. Continuously in successive generations the battle would go back and forth between the male gods that were warlike and disciplinarian; and the female gods that were compassionate symbols of fertility, but overbearing and volatile. The people’s leanings would swing back and forth as they became tired of one extreme and would default back to the other again.

But here in this parsha Moses points out that a central purpose of this giving of Torah was to liberate us from this type of foolish constraints upon our understanding of G-d by limiting the Divine into any form. G-d is nothing, He is not one thing; and at the same time He is everything; all things in creation are reflections of G-d’s nature, but G-d is not like any one thing alone. We cannot study and try to pattern the behavior of the Divine like we are watching a subject on Animal Planet. We can’t try or claim to understand G-d’s mind and motivation like people try to with a mouse in a maze study.

We cannot not limit G-d, as the Divine is bigger and more than we can ever comprehend or describe. G-d is the Encompassing-All, everything exists in Him and through His will alone; even though “He” isn’t a complete description without qualification of its gender inclusiveness in our Hebrew language and mindset. This need of rising to this higher understanding is not just so we can have a mature idea of G-d, but also so that G-d can be more mature than the trappings of petty human characteristics in our own mind as well. If we can’t do that, the inevitable result is that we start projecting more and more of our own qualities and fickleness upon G-d. That is just as much an idol as limiting G-d in the form of a mamash beheima – an actual animal.

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Parshat Chukat (2012)


Parshat Chukat
Numbers 19 -22:1

The Bronze Serpent: Sometimes problems arise, quite literally

Seprent on a RodAs we come into this weeks parsha we see that the children of Israel have been turned away from entering into the Promised Land. The Edomites, the descendants of Eisav (Esau, the brother of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our Father who was also called Israel; see Parshat Vayishlach) turned them away, not allowing them to cross through their land in their travels. (Numbers 20:18) For this reason they were forced to turn back into the wilderness toward the sea where they had come from. In the process this also exposed them to the attacks of Canaanites, who had managed to take captives from their ranks before subsequently being defeated. This left the Israelites with acquired land in the south to occupy, but they still did not have enough access to territory to ascend up to their land. Having to turn back around and face the windlessness they dwelt in for a whole generation it says “vtikzar nefesh / and they were disheartened.” (Numbers 21:3-4) What this literally means is “and they were short of spirit”.

The people begin to complain and grumble over their situation. This results in them befalling a horrible tragedy, as we read:

“And Hashem sent against the people

venomous [lit. burning] snakes

and they began to bite the people

and many people of Israel died.”

| Vayeshalach Hashem ba’am

| et hanechashim hasrafim

| vayenashchu et-ha’am

| vayamot am-rav miYisra’el

Numbers 21:6

Our rabbis bring down the obvious allusion being drawn by this plague, the people’s evil and negative words had become like the venom from the fangs of a serpent. This was slander that was so great that it had mortal consequences, and it immediately began to be demonstrated by a plague from G-d to show in their physical bodies how they were being consumed spiritually. What do I mean by this? I don’t many anything spooky. Spirit literally means a burst of air, wind. But figurately spirit in Hebrew (ruach), just like in the English language usually means an attitude of people; most often of people in group. To be of spirit means a determined and enthusiastic attitude shows by an individual or a group of people. Like when we think of the terms “team spirit” or “school spirit.” Only in passing and more figuratively do we reference the very similar words nefesh (souls) and ruach (spirit) in relations to an person’s eternal-soul or spirit-beings.

Instead of being of spirit, motived by an air of respectability and determination; they were short of spirit, they had the wind taken out of their sails. They were depressed. And this depression lead to resentment, and eventually anger being leveled against G-d and Moses through their griping. (v.5)

If spirit is like wind, the rushing and passing air that invisibly animates things, so too their words invisibly have effects on the atmosphere and situation around them. Not just subtly, but with all the ability to consume a person to the point of death, by poisoning their outlook. It does not take long for the people recognize the symbolism here, and to understand their wrong was speaking against G-d and Moses. As the American Indians say of liars, “they speak with forked-tongue,” the children of Israel are dripping negativity and slander like venom from fangs and they recognized it. So they turn to Moses and confess they that had spoken wrongly against G-d and again him, and asked for salvation from the resulting plague of snakes that was sent as a lesson to them. (v.7)

Moses does pray to G-d, who answers him with the following words:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

Make yourself a venomous snake

put it on a standard

and everyone who is bitten

and that shall look on it will live.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| aseh lecha saraf vesim

| oto al-nes

| vehayah kol-hanashuch

| vera’ah oto vachai

Numbers 21:8

Golden Eagle Standard

A replica of the top of the Roman Golden Eagle Standard

We read that Moses follows this order, and fashions a snake out of copper, places it on a nes – a standard. Most often when we read the word nes, we are talking about a flag or a banner. But it does also mean a standard, like a mascot; for instance the Roman army’s Golden Eagle was held high upon a pole before them when mobilized. When armies fought with their banner before them they would not just be fighting to defeat their enemies but also to keep the symbol of their honor raised high. As long as it was kept up it would become a rallying point for the people. As they looked up it would give them hope to get up and fight. What flags and standards have in common is they are elevated on a pole high enough for everyone to notice. For this reason nes is commonly translated as merely pole for this purpose in this verse here.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of symbols like a flag (nes). They have the ability to give such powerful motivation they often inspire another noun for nes; a miracle. The power of positive thinking produces nothing less than miraculous result in our lives. And this is what they needed, because the Israelites were consumed by their negativity.

Thus Moses created the Copper Serpent. But why was it made of out copper? For this answer we turn to Rashi:

Copper serpent

He was not told to make it out of copper.

Moses said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He,

called it a snake (nachash)

so I will make it out of copper (nechoshet),’

which is a play on words.”

נחש נחשת: |

לא נאמר לו לעשותו של נחשת, |

אלא אמר משה הקב”ה |

קוראו נחש, |

ואני אעשנו של נחושת, |

לשון נופל על לשון: |

Rashi on Numbers 21:9

The details for making this standard was left open for him to decide. He could have made a flag with a snake on it if he wanted to. But it appears that Moses did not want to stray and be too imaginative in the plans for the symbol that he was making. He went with a material that sounded like the symbol he was forming.

It is important that we understand that this story is steeped in symbolism. The choice of construction for this symbol is also seemingly symbolic in other not so obvious ways. Lets take a look again at the term “saraf vesim / fiery serpents.” This simply means burning snakes. Their venom felt like fire against the flesh, so there is a purposefulness in their name. But there is another symbolism that seems to be drawn from here, or at least later commentators and apocryphal literature would notice of the term seraf, which means burning, that this is reminiscent of the Serafim; the fiery angels. What is a Seraf? It is a form of heavenly angel. Among the most notorious of the angelic hosts are Charbim in our tradition, which are placed on the Ark of the Covenant; two large, golden angels with wings touching, placed upon the covering lid. (see Exodus 27:9) They too stand as unique symbols of Israelite iconography.

Whereas cheribs guard the glory of G-d, the serafim constantly declare the glory of G-d. They are the exalted angels, that raise themselves above the throne of heaven and constantly praise His holiness and might. We see them in the book of Isaiah, where witnessing them was so overwhelming that the prophet could not contain himself and began to make a holy confession, as we read:

“Then I said: Woe is me! for I am undone;

because I am a man of unclean lips,

and in the midst of a people of unclean lips

do I dwell:”

וָאֹמַר אוֹי-לִי כִי-נִדְמֵיתִי, |

כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא-שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי, |

וּבְתוֹךְ עַם-טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם, |

אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב: |

Isaiah 6:5

We are told that a single angel was sent to the prophet and purified his lips with a burning coal from the Altar. If we think about it, this is precisely what we need to have happen here. The people need to be purified. The burning of the prophet’s lips is something different than the burning of the Israelites flesh, but the gist is the same. Here we can see a single seraf being sent to the people; and the promised declared that if they see, hear, understand with their hearts, and return then they would be healed (Isaiah 6:10)

Rod of Asclepius and Caduceus

The Rod of Asclepius (left) is the traditional symbol of medicine. The Caduceus (right), though not classically being associated as such, is the widely recognized American symbol for medicine adopted by the US Army Medical Corps in 1902.

For this reason it may not be unfounded that people associate the Copper Snake as something more akin to the symbol of the winged Caduceus than the more related classical association with the Rod of Asclepius; the latter being the correct Greek symbol of medicine, while the former is a more recently adopted winged symbol being recognized by us Americans. Americans seem to commingle the symbols based on a biblical understanding, and less on the actual Greek mythology that propagated the symbols.

This is because in the Torah what we see is Moses creating a copper snake standard that is more of a messenger (Heb. malach, also the same word for angel). But why out of copper? What benefit would this have as a symbol? It seems obvious to me that copper has a highly reflective surface, often finely polished and used as mirrors in the biblical age. (see Exodus 38:8) When forged of this choice of metal it would be very bright when lifted up, and thus easy for people to see. This symbol would serve the same purpose as the cherabim of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) it seems, to reflect light so brightly that they appear to glow and flood the entire area around it.

If my assumption of this is true, then you might ask yourself why not make it out of gold like the cherabim of the Ark? Surely it would last longer, as the shinny surface of copper quickly begins to oxidize; first turning a dull brown, and then eventually green over time. But I believe this is precisely one of the reasons as well, as this symbol was not made to be a perpetual representation like the cherubs. This symbol had one purpose, only there and in the context of that situation. This symbol didn’t have to be built to last.

In fact it was better that the symbol not be something perpetual. It’s purposefulness seems evident from the fact we will see later in the Scriptures that this symbol was set up in the Sanctuary, and was present even in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It must have most certainly been a memorial to their incident with the snakes, as well as preserving something that was previously used as a sacred item in a way to not show contempt for it. But apparently the people did begin to reverence it too much to the point that it was considered unacceptable. It became and idol presence in the place where the holy offerings were elevated, so it was destroyed along with the sacred trees dedicated to pagan worship in the days of Hezekiah and the Assyrian empire. It was so well known as as symbol that it was given a nickname, the Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18:4)

And this is precisely why most of us are uncomfortable with this story of the Nehushtan. How is that Moses is creating this item, with G-d tolerating his choice of design? We know very well what the Torah says regarding this type of construction:

“Do not turn to idols

or make gods of cast metal for yourselves.

I am Hashem your G-d.”

אַל-תִּפְנוּ, אֶל-הָאֱלִילִם, |

וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם: |

אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. |

Leviticus 19:4

It is well known that based on its mirroring verse in Deut. 7:25 that many people’s general understanding of the halacha is that we are not allowed to make sculptures; in setting a fence around Torah we abhor anything that might be associated with iconography. But this is not the actual halacha, we are taught that an item does not become an idol until it is worshiped. (see Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kohavim 7) In fact even the most conservative of poskim would not hold by this halacha at this point in history, resorting to the traditional understanding, that something does not become an idol until it is actually worshiped. Now in the modern age, outright idolatry is so unknown that lifelike objects made by anyone are not considered an item of idolatry until utilized for that purpose. (see Shach 23, and a referencing article) Nonetheless our distaste in such items remains.

Simply put, once the image of the Nehushtan took on too much importance it needed to be destroyed. There was nothing divine or special about it that demanded reverence. It seems to me that it was a transient symbol, only purposeful in the context of the desert plague of serpents. Only over time did it pervert into something else, that literally became an idol lifnei Hashem – before the face of G-d, as we are commanded against having in the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:3)

It is my belief in the intent of the Nehushtan to be temporary that explains why this symbol was formed after the likeness of a serpent. It only needed to be used that once time, and for that one purpose. Had it been something that was be more permanent then I’m sure it would have taken on the form of a cherub instead; fitting nicely into the permanent decor of the Sanctuary. But a guard for the presence of G-d was not necessary, one to declare His glory was needed this situation in the desert. And it was only important in the there and then.

Rashi firmly states for us that the purpose of this symbol was, and demands that people abandon any idea that there was any mystical property in the Nehushtan itself. As he teaches us:

“Our Rabbis said:

Does [this] snake cause death or life?

However, when Israel

looked heavenward

and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven,

they would be healed,

but if not, they would waste away.”

אמרו רבותינו |

וכי נחש ממית או מחיה, |

אלא בזמן שהיו ישראל |

מסתכלין כלפי מעלה |

ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים |

היו מתרפאים, |

ואם לאו היו נמוקים: |

Rashi on Numbers 21:8; 11th century

This is also further support by the disciples of Rashi, one of whom would go on to affirm this point while also offering us yet another reason that the symbol of the serpent was chosen instead of a more simple figure of an angel:

“And the reason he made a serpent

and not some other object

was to magnify the miracle,

for the Holy One, blessed be He,

smites with a knife and heals with a knife

(as said in the

Mekhilta, Be-Shalah, s.v. va-yasa, p. 156).

If the

Holy One, blessed be He, had so wished it,

no object would have been necessary,

and they would

immediately have been healed;

rather, it was to intensify the miracle,

so that they would not say

it was mere chance.”

ומה שעשה נחש |

לו דבר אחר, |

כדי להגדיל הנס |

שהקב”ה |

מכה באיזמל ומרפא באיזמל |

(מובא |

במכילתא בשלח, ויסע עמ’ 156) |

ואם היה |

רצונו של הקב”ה |

לא היו צריכין שום דבר, |

אלא יון |

מתרפאים מיד, |

אלא להגדיל הנס |

ושלא יאמרו |

מקרה הוא. |

Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, 12th century

What G-d was doing was providing an appropriate and recognizable cure to their problem at hand. Moses did not provide a traditional angel, mostly likely because he did not want it to be an intermediary between the people and G-d. The symbol of the Nehushtan was only created in order for the people to recognize that G-d was providing a cure for their situation at hand. All they needed to do was intently focus their attention heavenward, towards the Throne of Heaven with their problems in mind and G-d would heal them.

But there was no power or mystical virtue in the Nehushtan itself. It was merely a nes; a banner and standard. It was a symbol created to lift the peoples spirits up and out of their situation, and to focus their attention towards our Father in Heaven. Though the symbol was powerless in and of itself, their use of it had miraculous results.

Consider it for a moment, why does the word nes also means a miracle in Hebrew? What was so miraculous about this symbol? It was a sign (nes) to the people; as we see it used it used in Parshat Korach (see Numbers 26:10). This would serve as a sign to the people, as it would be raised up in the wind like a flag (nes; see Isaiah 11:12) to signal hope to them. Being raised in the wind (ruach) it would serve as a sign (nes) to raise their spirits (ruach), so that the people would no longer be vtikzar nefesh (short of spirit; disheartened). Sure the symbol itself was powerless, just like a national flag or similar item is endued with nothing more than the hopes of the people who look to it. In reality they didn’t need a symbol at all, it was just a mundane item they regarded as a talisman.

That’s how powerful human belief and hope is. G-d seems to have instructed the creation of the item to help the people who needed to be motivated by simple suggestibility to look above their current situation. All they needed was to find the enthusiasm to believe.

This story serves as a lesson to us, that G-d does in fact permit us to have very tangible symbols and signs in which to help us focus our attention and faith heavenward. But it stands as a testaments to us as Jews as to why we tend to not rely on symbols and signs, because in the end they can just become a distraction. Symbolisms and ritual items should only direct our attention to G-d alone, as we should never let anything become sacred and revered in its own right.


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