Archive for June, 2012

June 28, 2012 1:06 am CDT

Hukkat: Inside the Box

And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle.  And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in  me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you  shall not bring this congreation into the land which I have given them.”  (Numbers 20:11-12)

If you find God’s response puzzling here, read the whole story in Numbers 20:2-13.  I doubt that you’ll be more satisfied.    As Issac Arama puts it (beginning with a proverb from the Talmud),

“’A table, meat, and a knife before us, but no mouth to eat with.’  The commandment of God is clearly outlined, the deed that was performed is not concealed from us and the subsequent wrath of God astonishes us, but no satisfactory explanation emerges.”

If “no satisfactory explanation emerges,” it isn’t because the classic commentators didn’t try.  Here are three explanations of Moses’ “sin” (there are other explanations as well, but they are even less persuasive).

1) Rashi, following earlier midrash, says the sin is that Moses struck the rock (as he had in Exodus 17) instead of speaking to it.  Nachmanides, however, argues that God’s instruction to ‘take the staff’ implied that Moses should strike the rock.  Had God insisted on him speaking to the rock, there would have been no need for the staff.  Nachmanides cites the plague stories, where Moses was ordered to take the staff always for the purpose of striking with it.  Thus, the text implies that Moses is to strike the rock; moreover the miracle is not enhanced if Moses speaks rather than strikes.

2) Maimonides: “His whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience, when he used the expression, “hear now you rebels!”   Such words, coming from a man to whom all the people looked up to as a model of good conduct, were a profanation of the Name (hillul ha-shem), in Maimonides’ view.

However, God doesn’t fault Moses for his anger.  In fact, a similar “why did you bring us out of Egypt?” complaint elicits God’s own anger in Num 11.

3) Nachmanides “Moses made the fatal mistake of saying, “Shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” instead of saying “Shall God bring forth water for you out of this rock?”  The people might have been misled into thinking that Moses and Aaron had extracted the water for them, by their own skill.”

If this was Moses’ first appearance before the people, or if there was any indication in the text that he sought to usurp God’s honor, I might be satisfied with Nachmanides’ explanation.  But Moses’ role as “the servant of YHWH” has been well established by this time.  Besides, the Psalm has no problem saying of Moses and Aaron, “they performed his signs among them, miracles against the land of Ham” (105:27, my italics)

We can see why Luzzato protested, “Moses our teacher committed one sin, but our commentators have heaped on him thirteen and more, each one of them having invented a fresh one . . . I have therefore hitherto refrained from going into this problem for fear I might attribute a new sin to Moses.”

June 28, 2012 12:50 am CDT

Hukkat: Outside the Box

What if the whole question of Moses’ sin is a red herring?  What if the real point of the passage is to demonstrate the folly of seeking to explain everything that befalls as a result of someone’s sin?

When we divest ourselves of the drama of Moses’ alleged sin, we do not find the arc of his life damaged or unfulfilled.  Indeed, it seems fitting and wholesome that Moses gives us his last words outside the land.  In this way, Torah stands above, or to one side of, what we like to consider the exigencies of survival, of life in the world.  Not so far removed, of course, as to be irrelevant or utopian, but distinct enough to awaken us to our better selves.

Such considerations may not have been any comfort to Moses at the time.  But the rest of the Torah, especially the book of Deuteronomy, shows us a man who has put this disappointment behind him, who rallies himself for one last great summation of his faith and vision.

June 21, 2012 4:12 pm CDT

Korah: Aaron’s staff

Moses spoke to the Israelites; and all their leaders gave him staffs, one for each leader, according to their ancestral  houses, twelve staffs; and the staff of Aaron was among  theirs.  So Moses placed the staffs before the LORD in the tent of the covenant.  When Moses went into the tent of the covenant on the next  day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted.  It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.  (Numbers 17:21-23)

In this parsha, the question of Aaron’s leadership is settled when his staff* alone bursts into flower. This is not the first time that Aaron’s staff has been transformed.  Recall that in the Exodus story, in the court of Pharaoh, Aaron’s staff becomes a snake.

From staff to snake, from staff to flowering tree.   Two very different transformations.  Is it a magic staff?  No, it is simply Aaron’s staff, and the transformation shows us two aspects of one man, or two aspects of the leadership that his staff symbolizes.

Throughout human history, people have been wary of snakes, even when they have been blasé about much greater dangers.   There is something about a snake that communicates an instant danger signal.  In religion, when the snake is not an outright symbol of evil, it is a mysterious being intimately connected with the ground from which it emerges and returns, an enigmatic messenger from the lower depths.    The snake that has been Aaron’s staff devours the staff-snakes of the competing Egyptian magicians.  I see in the snake an aggressive aspect of power that relies on the threat of injury.

If we are naturally repelled by snakes, we are naturally attracted to flowers.  Is there a culture in the world that does not find them beautiful?    And Aaron’s rod not only blossoms, but produces almonds.   I see in the blossoming of Aaron’s rod a receptive aspect of power that makes its appeal through its beauty and the benefits it produces.

Will Soll

*the word for “staff” is mateh, which also means “tribe.”

June 21, 2012 4:05 pm CDT

Korah: “It is not in Heaven”

The stories in this week’s parsha settle the question of leadership by an appeal to miraculous signs.  While the Rabbis of old certainly respected the narrative of the Torah, they were adamant that miracles did not settle such questions in their own day.  To paraphrase the Monty Python boys, impromptu earthquakes and efflorescent insignia are no basis for a system of government.  A well known story from the Talmud illustrates the Rabbinic reliance on discourse, even when it flies in the face of “miracles.”*  Rabbi Eliezer is disputing the other Sages about the purity status of a disassembled stove.

“On that day R. Eliezer brought all the proof in the world , but they did not accept it.  He said, “If the law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — some say, four hundred.  They said to him, “No proof can be brought from a carob-tree.”

Then he said to them, “If the law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!”  Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they replied.

Then he said, “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it!” and the walls leaned over as though they were about to fall.   But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: “What business is it of yours when scholars engage in a halachic dispute?” Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of R. Eliezer; but are leaning to this day.

Then  he said, “If the law agrees with me, let Heaven itself prove it!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: “Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer?  The law agrees with him in every case!”  But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven.”**

What did he mean “not in heaven.”? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; the voice from heaven does not concern us, for it was written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority must one incline.”***

(Later, Rabbi Nathan has a vision of the prophet Elijah, and asks him “What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do at that time when Rabbi Joshua refused to heed the heavenly voice?” Elijah said to Rabbi Nathan: “God smiled and said: `My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me!”)

*Personally, I don’t have a problem with miracles, since they happen all the time, and my own existence is a wonder I can’t explain.  But I do have a problem with miracles on demand, miracles as intermittent tinkering, with God sporadically fixing our social and religious disputes by extraordinary signs that tell us unmistakably who is right and who is wrong.

**R. Joshua is quoting the Torah,  “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you . . .  is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it . . . .  No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” (Deut. 31:11-14)

***This is a common rabbinic interpretation of Ex. 23:2, which says practically the opposite.   I wonder if the rabbinic interpretation was first created in the Hellenistic era to justify courts which operated on the basis of majority rule.

June 13, 2012 10:35 pm CDT

Shelach-Lekha: It’s Too Late

The Israelites rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the LORD has promised, for we have sinned.”  But Moses said, “Why is it you are overstepping the LORD’s word, when it will not succeed.  Do not go up, for the LORD is not in your midst. . . . ”  But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country . . . .Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that  hill country came down and struck them and shattered them all the way to Hormah.  (Num 14:40-45)

There is a Rebbe Nachman story “The Lost Princess” about a man who seeks to free a princess who had been banished to an evil place because of a hasty curse her father had uttered.  The man is told that in order to free her he has to keep vigil in a secluded spot for a year.  But he violates the terms of the vigil on the final day, and the princess remains shut up in the fortress.  It doesn’t take a wholesale moral collapse to open the door to evil and failure, just a single error, even a casual slip.

This motif is common in folk tales, but is also characteristically Jewish.  In this week’s Torah portion, God had commanded the Israelites, through Moses, to take possession of the land of Canaan.   Put off by the fears of some of the scouts, they backed out.  In the above verses, they repent, but Moses tells them it’s too late.

This failure has more serious consequences than the Golden Calf.   In both cases, Israel repents, but here, the repentance comes only after God had already vowed that “none of the people who . . .  have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors” (Num 14:22-23).   The door that was open is now shut.  It will re-open in time, but not for them.

June 13, 2012 10:30 pm CDT

Shelach-Lekha: Life Goes On

Immediately after the misguided incursion into Canaan (on the left), God goes right back to stipulating laws about sacrifice, sabbath, ritual fringes, etc.  “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you enter the land that I am about to give you . . .'” (Num 15:1-2)

We are quite accustomed to instructions beginning this way, but here, the sudden shift is jarring (take a look).  Ibn Ezra, with his “characteristic alertness to possibilities of continuity in disjunct texts” (Alter), says the juxtaposition is intended “to comfort the sons by letting them know that they would come into the land.”

Possibly–although you could also say that God is rubbing salt in the wounds of those who will never see the land.  But when I read it this time around, I felt neither consolation nor spite, but simply a return to a routine.  God just takes up where He left off legislating, as though nothing had happened.  Perhaps that’s for the best.  After all, the relationship between God and Israel, with Moses in the middle, is frayed considerably by this point in Numbers.  These strands of Torah are the rope that still binds them, and with it, they move on.

June 7, 2012 12:50 am CDT


Jacob Milgrom on the Fire-Cloud (Numbers 9:15-23)

“God leads Israel in its wilderness march not by voiced commands but by a cloud-encased fire (cf. Exod. 40:38).   During the day, only the cloud is visible, the fire, presumably, dimmed by sunlight.  But night renders the cloud invisible, and the luminous fire (also called kavod, “glory”) can be clearly seen.

“When the fire-cloud descends upon the Tabernacle ( Exod. 40: 34) or leaves it ( Ezek. 10: 4a), it expands into the courtyard ( Ezek. 10: 4b) so that the consecrated personnel cannot enter ( Exod. 40: 35). In effect, the power of the numinous is increased when in motion. Our passage states unequivocally that it is the ascending and descending fire-cloud that determines whether Israel moves or encamps.  (Num 9:18).  As soon as the Tabernacle is reassembled, it is enveloped by the cloud.”

There’s a lot here that is suggestive.  There are contrasts between day and night, cloud and fire, rest and motion, with no suggestion of better or worse: they are equally holy, part of the rhythm of life.  This principle of undulation and alternation is nicely articulated by Emerson, in one of his journal entries (we might even associate “solitude” with “rest” and “society” with “motion”)

Solitude is naught and society is naught. Alternate them and the good of each is seen. You can soon learn all that society can teach you for one while. Then retire and hide; and from the valley behold the mountain. Have solitary prayer and praise. Love the garden, the barn, the pasture, and the rock. There digest and correct the past experience, blend it with the new and divine life, and grow with God. After some interval when these delights have been sucked dry, accept again the opportunities of society. The same scenes revisited shall wear a new face, shall yield a higher culture. And so on. Undulation, Alternation, is the condition of progress, of life.

Another facet of this undulatation is expressed by the Hebrew phrase rotzo v’shov, taken from Ezekiel 1:14, which means “running and returning.”   In Jewish mysticism this denotes the necessary alternation of mystical and mundane awareness.

June 7, 2012 12:35 am CDT

Two Barn Swallows

Two barn swallows
sat silent on a clothesline.
Sworn silence, I proposed,
playing a game that those
birds were yourself and myself.
They gazed, stoically I thought,
at the herds on the so much green
grazing, and the gray-blue
morning sky beyond.
Then they dove up off,
Wings winnow, or span
like a glider, when a favorable
wind catches their flight.
But what, or who, was the guider of that
instant, when some slight
change, intangible immediacy,
signaled their departure? . . .


Give me a sign, subtle yet distinct
–that as I run, I may read,
and as I read, discern–
of how yours and mine are kindly linked
beyond expediency,
beyond the range of the archer.
For I have still so much to heed.
Still, still so much to learn.

Will Soll

June 1, 2012 1:49 am CDT


YHWH spoke to Moses: Tell Aaron and his sons: Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: “The Lord bless you and keep you!  The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you!  The Lord lift his face to you and give you peace!”  Thus they shall place my name on the people of Israel, and I Myself will bless them.”  Num 6:22-27.

“Bless” describes a full circle of relation between the upper and lower worlds.  From above it is the infusion of life, of all the things that permit joy, security and wholeness, as it is said “and YHWH blessed Abraham in everything” (Gen 24:1).  From below, it is an expression of praise and gratitude, as it is said, “And David blessed YHWH” (1 Chr 29:10).   The two acts are mirrors of each other, and form a single circuit.

Other verbs in this blessing also have a reciprocal nature.  God “keeps” us and we “keep” God, or at least we “keep” those sacred duties God has given us.  One is reminded of Ibn Ezra’s poem, “Ki eshmera shabbat, El yishmereini” (if I keep the Sabbath, God will keep me).

One “lifts up” the face when one is pleased (cf. Psalm 4:6, Ezra 9:6, Genesis 4:6).  When God “lifts up his face” to us, that lifts up our faces.  Perhaps, for an instant, our eyes meet.

June 1, 2012 1:45 am CDT

BaKol–In Everything

“God blessed Abraham in everything” (Gen 24:1).  The word “in” translates the  Hebrew preposition b (the letter bet).  It’s a perfectly good translation, but bet  has so many possibilities that I thought it’d be fun to ring the changes on it, with the help of Williams’ Hebrew Syntax.

  • locative — everywhere
  • temporal — at all times
  • adversative — in spite of everything [in spite of his trials, or even himself]
  • instrumental — by means of everything
  • accompaniment — along with everything
  • of identity, essence — as everything (i.e., God is everything and, as such, was a blessing to Abraham)