No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 1: Introduction

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 1

Introduction

 

A few months ago, Professor Yoram Hazony wrote an article critiquing the approach to Biblical Criticism taken by Open Orthodoxy, or at least by the Open Orthodox community he had spent spent a shabbat with. It’s an excellent article, one that admits to being a product of the author’s subjective experience, while still being bold enough to pose challenging questions. The main thrust of these questions, and of the article as a whole, was regarding the statement made by the Rabbi of the community, that what set Open Orthodoxy apart was its willingness to confront challenging issues, such as Biblical Criticism, and to struggle with them honestly (presumably in contrast to the rest of the Jewish Community). Prof. Hazony’s article paints a picture quite at odds with this statement, a picture where anything less than absolute acceptance of Biblical Criticism is completely unacceptable, where even questioning Biblical Criticism merits an immediate and condescending dismissal. The article concludes by comparing Open Orthodoxy to the Protestant Movement, which a century ago decided to accept Biblical Criticism, and has paid the price for it.

While Prof. Hazony does have some harsh words for the Open Orthodox community, he does also say that he is “willing to regard [it] as a positive force.” He cannot abide the automatic acceptance of whatever opinions are popular amongst secular scholars, but he is fine with openly and honestly tackling challenges to Orthodoxy. While many people used his article as a springboard from which to offhandedly reject Biblical Criticism and Open Orthodoxy, Prof. Hazony was not proposing such an action. Instead, he was proposing nuance, both in relation to Open Orthodoxy, and in terms of how Orthodoxy may approach Biblical Criticism.

It is this approach that I would like to take in what I hope will be a series of short essays on the topic of Biblical Criticism, each dealing with different aspects of the topic. Most jews either accept Biblical Criticism in its totality, or reject that self-same totality. Much of the goal of this series will be to show that both of these approaches are mistaken. Biblical Criticism in not a monolithic structure, It has many complex pieces and approaches, and we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many of these methods are similar to those used by the Medieval commentators of the Jewish Tradition[1]. Some parts of Biblical Criticism are not simply unacceptable from an Orthodox theological point of view, they are also questionable from points of view within the secular academic world, and I will attempt to demonstrate this as well. I will attempt to point out what parts of Biblical Criticism are not only not problematic for Orthodoxy, but are in fact quite valuable. And most of all, I will attempt to show that we have nothing to fear from Biblical Criticism.

 

(For part 2 of the series, see here)

 

[1] See this article by Rav Yaakov Elman (wherein he at one point discusses the Rishonim who make use of the concept of “Resumptive Repetition”): http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/704636/Rabbi_Ya’akov_Elman/’It_Is_No_Empty_Thing’:_Nahmanidies_and_the_Search_for_Omnisignificance

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Parashat Matot – Human Initiative and the Divine Will

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת

 

Parashat Matot contains the story of Bnei Yisrael’s war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8), which finishes the story of Pinhas and the sin of Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25). Chapters 26-30 are an interjection, interrupting the story of Bnei Yisrael’s encounter with Midyan. While some of the sections in these chapters might be chronologically in order (see 26:1, for example), other law sections could have gone anywhere, and thus their placement in the midst of the Midyan narratives strange. However, a close analysis of the parshiyot of chapters 26-30 demonstrates that the whole unit, starting from Bamidbar 25 and stretching through chapter 30, explicates and demonstrates different aspects of the tension between the Divine Will and Human Initiative.[1]

This unit breaks down into (A) Pinhas, (B) the Census and the Daughters of Tselophehad, (C) Moshe being told to go up on the Mountain and Yehoshua’s Appointment, and (D) The Laws of the Festival Sacrifices and the Laws of Personal Vows. While Pinhas’ Narrative stands alone, the rest of the sections are pairs, half of each emphasizing the Divine Will and half emphasizing Human Initiative. Together, they create what seems to a very full picture of the different aspects of the tension between Divine Will and Human Initiative, one which is built upon in the following narratives of the Spoils of War (Bamidbar 31:9-54) and the Request of Reuven and Gad (Bamidbar 32).

In the story of Pinhas, Bnei Yisrael had sinned, and were suffering from a plague in consequence (25:1-3). Then ‘א said to Moshe, “Take the leaders of the people and execute them before ‘א, that ‘א’s wrath may be turned back from upon the nation” (25:4). Moshe then instructs the judges of Israel to take the sinners that are under their jurisdiction and to kill them. This is a valid reading of ‘א’s command, based on interpreting “them” to mean the sinners, and that “take the leaders” means that Moshe should act with them. It is not the intuitive reading, which would mean simply to kill the leaders themselves, but it is certainly valid, and we do not see that Moshe is punished or corrected for his interpretation. However, there is an implied critique on Moshe in the extensive praise and reward lavished on Pinhas, who did indeed fulfill the more intuitive reading of ‘א’s command, and turned ‘א’s wrath back from upon the people. Interestingly, we do not see that Pinhas heard the command to Moshe, or was a prophet in his own right, or anything of the like. Rather he seems to have decided on his own that this was the correct thing to do, and thus he was acting both in accordance with the Divine Will and his own, human, initiative.

The census of chapters 26 and 27 serves to detail all the families of all the tribes for the purpose of dividing the Land of Israel up evenly between them. In this census, only males inherit land and thus only male heirs of the tribes are delineated, with the exception of Serah Bat Asher (26:46) and the daughters of Tselophehad (26:33). The daughters of Tzelophehad are uniquely mentioned here in order to pave the way for their taking  of the stage at the beginning of Chapter 27, where they approach Moshe and ask to inherit the land of their father, in order that his name not disappear from his tribe[2], and after Moshe speaks to ‘א, they are granted this right. Thus the original Divine law, that only sons inherit, was changed by Human Initiative.[3]

The narrative of the Daughters of Tselophehad is followed by a brief command to Moshe that he go up on Mount Avarim to see the Land of Israel before he dies[4] (27:12-14), which is followed by his request from ‘א that He appoint a leader to take Moshe’s place. The careful reader will notice that ‘א makes no mention here of a replacement for Moshe, rather Moshe asks for it on his own[5] (27:15-17). This is a case where the Divine will accepting a completely Human Initiative and acting upon it, as opposed to the previous case where the Human Initiative simply led to a slight Modification in the divine plan.

The final section before the War with Midyan is not a narrative but two sets of Laws, intimately related. The first section of laws (Bamidbar 28 & 29) is the laws of public sacrifices, both the daily sacrifices and the additional sacrifices for festivals. This is followed by the laws for personal vows (Bamidbar 30). While at first glance these appear to be separate, they are connected by the institution of the vow-offerings. If a person vows to bring an offering, it would be brought at one of the festivals. Thus the laws of chapter 30 are really part and parcel of the laws of chapters 28 & 29[6]. Thus one might consider the whole section part of the Divine Will category. However, the laws of chapter 30 are all about voluntary vows a person might take upon themselves. Therefore this is in fact a case of where the Divine Will includes space for Human Initiative.

The War with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8) completes the Pinhas story (Bamidbar 25) disrupts the thematic tensions of Divine Will and Human Initiative with an absolute Divine command. It leads into a series of events involving the spoils of the war that build upon and contrast with the themes of Bamidbar 25-30.

Immediately after the war with Midyan, before the soldiers can even return to the camp, Moshe and the other leaders of Israel confront the returning army. They had failed to wipe out the women of Midyan who had caused Bnei Yisrael to sin in the first place (25:1-3), instead keeping them for themselves. The soldiers are reprimanded, and told to rectify their mistake. Here, while lacking an explicit and obvious Divine command, it is clear that the Human Initiative still went astray.

This story is followed by the divvying up of the spoils of the war to each member of the nation. Percentages were taken from all of the spoils for the Levi’im and for ‘א. This portion for ’א was taken and given to Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Then at the end of the section, the officers of the army come before Moshe and Elazar and say that because none of their soldiers died in the war, they want to give a tribute to ‘א from their finest spoils. They do so, and it is clear that this is considered somehow greater than the first percentage given to ‘א from the spoils, as that was simply given to Elazar, where this is “brought into the Tent of Meeting for a memorial for Bnei Yisrael before ‘א.” Thus in this case the Human Initiative does not stray, but rather builds on and succeeds the Divine Will.

The final case is that of the Request of Reuven and Gad to dwell on the far side of the Yarden River. This on first appearance seems to be incredibly problematic, as Moshe points out by comparing them to the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14). They are rejecting the Land of Israel, which ‘א has given them an inheritance, in favor of land that’s better pasture for their livestock. Not only that, but they outdo the spies by trying to separate from the rest of the nation by dwelling apart, thus damaging national unity. However, upon further questioning they reveal that their intent was not to reject the Land of Israel nor to harm national unity. Not only are they not trying to separate from the rest of the people, but they are willing to lead the charge into the Land of Israel, putting themselves in harm’s way for no gain of their own. They are not rejecting ‘א’s Land, they are asking to expand it, defining the Land of Israel as the Land in which Israel dwells[7]. Their Human Initiative is not rejecting the Divine will, but embracing it and surpassing it.

Man takes a position of great power and importance in the Torah. He is created in the Image of ‘א, the Creator of the World. Tehillim 8 sees man as “מעט מא׳לוהים”, “a little less than Divine.” And yet his first great act is to disobey the Divine Will, to push against ‘א. Man is powerful, but also fickle. This portrayed strongly as Bnei Yisrael make ready to enter the Land of Israel and live under their own control at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps the strongest indication of this is the ambiguity of Reuven and Gad’s request. Based on their request, Moshe predicts Bnei Yisrael having to wait another 40 years in the desert. But this is a false perception, as the tribes intend not evil but great good. Man’s will can go either way, it can be lowly or it can be great. It can even intuit the Divine. It’s up to us what we do with it.

 

[1] Many of the Ideas in this composition come from this piece by Rav Yonatan Grossman of Michlelet Herzog and Bar-Ilan University: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.64/42matot-masei.htm.

[2] For a discussion of why this story is not a feminist one, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.60/41pinhas.htm.

 

[3] The tension here is aptly displayed by the midrash brought by Rashi on Baidbar 27:7. “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly: As the Targum [Onkelos] יָאוּת, rightly. [As if God said,] This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high (Sifrei Pinchas 18). It teaches us that their eye perceived what Moses’ eye did not. – [see Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8]”. (translation from chabad.org).

[4] The exact nature of this command is complex, for an excellent and fascination discussion of the differing views and possibilities by Rav Elchanan Samet of Michlelet Herzog, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/41pinchas.htm.

[5] It’s entirely possible that without Moshe’s request there would not have been a replacement leader, part of a much larger discussion about the ideal form of leadership and government of Bnei Yisrael, which goes far beyond the scope of this composition.

[6] See the Rashbam’s comment on Bamidbar 30:2-3. There are also linguistic parallels between this section and it’s neighbors.

[7] This sets the stage for any further conquest Israel might perform from Yehoshua until the Exile.

Parashat Pinhas – Zealotry and Leadership

וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן יַעֲמֹד

 

In Chapter 27 of Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe asks ‘א to choose the person who will replace him as leader of the people, as part of the preparations for entering the land of Israel that are depicted at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. The person chosen by the “God of the spirits of all life” (Bamidbar 27:16) is Yehoshua son of Nun  (27:18). In retrospect, the choice is obvious. He was one of the two faithful spies in Bamidbar 14. He served Moshe from his youth (11:28) and never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11). However, before Yehoshua is picked, he is not the obvious choice. This selection comes hot on the heels of the actions and rewarding of Pinhas son of Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Why he should have been passed over is not at first clear, especially considering the lavish praise and reward heaped upon him by ‘א. However, examine the commands given to Yehoshua in terms of how he should lead will demonstrate that the zealotry that Pinhas is famous for is exactly what kept him from being named leader of the Nation of Israel.

When Moshe asks ‘א to appoint a leader for the Nation of Israel, he is given very specific instructions regarding the appointment of Yehoshua.

And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put of your honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. (Bamidbar 27:18-21)

Moshe is told to take Yehoshua and to stand him before Elazar the Kohen Gadol, and that Yehoshua should ask Elazar for “the Judgment of the Urim,” the word of ‘א as received via the Urim V’Tumim, before he leads the people in any new journey. While Yehoshua leads the people, he does not lead them according to his will, but according to the Will of ‘א, as he receives it from the Kohen Gadol. Only once he has gone to Elazar and asked Elazar to ask ‘א what they should do, and Elazar has given Yehosha the response from ‘א, only then can he direct the people.

In direct contrast to this, Pinhas is a zealot. He acts quickly and rashly. He sees Zimri sinning with Cozbi and he acts, grabbing his spear and plunging it through them. He does not wait for instructions, he does not check with Moshe or Elazar to see if what he is doing is right, he simply does it. And he is praised for it, quite extensively. ‘א says of him:

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’ (Bamidbar 25:11-13)

Pinhas’ zealotry results in some of the most effusive praise and reward in Tanakh. However, that does not mean that such actions are proper for a leader.

The 17th chapter of Sefer Devarim contains the commandment for Bnei Yisrael to appoint a king, and the commandments incumbent upon that king.

When you come unto the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell therein; and shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’;  you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you; you mayest not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses; forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you: ‘You shall henceforth return no more that way.’ Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them;  that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel. (Devarim 17:14-20)

The laws of a king are essentially two: 1. the tripartite command to avoid possessing an abundance of wives, horses, and money, and 2. the instruction for the king to always have on his person the sefer torah that he writes in order he “fear the Lord his God,” keep all of the mitzvoth, and not feel as if he is greater than the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Carrying a sefer torah with him at all times ensures that the king will not act out of impulse. It’s much harder to be overcome by emotion and burst out with a sudden bout of monarchical power if you are holding the Law of ‘א in your hands.

The Nation of Israel has had many leaders, from Moshe to David, from Menashe to Ezra, from the Men of the Great Assembly to our own modern day leaders. The one unifying factor has been the necessity of leading the people in line with ‘א’s Law. Leadership is not about self-aggrandizement. The leader is there for the betterment of the people, not vice-versa. While there may be a place for spontaneous zealotry, it’s not on the throne, or in the Knesset. Leadership is about trying to create a life for the people in accordance with their values, in accordance with the Torah. Pinhas may have turned back ‘א’s wrath from upon the people (Bamidbar 25:11), but only Yehoshua, who never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11), had the consistency and dedication to lead Bnei Yisrael.

 

Derashah L’Shabbat Chatan – Marriage and the State of Creation

I prepared a derashah in case I was asked to speak at my shabbat chatan. In the end I did not give it, but I wrote it up and present it here for public consumption and critique.

 

Derashah L’Shabbat Chatan

The relationship between Man and Woman first arises in the second chapter of Sefer Bereishit (2:20-24). In order to rectify the first man’s state of being alone and without a partner, the man is put to sleep and a woman is formed using one of his ribs. The man then declares, “This one at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from Man she was taken,” (2:23). Man and woman have now been created as distinct entities, but due to their inherent sameness, they can, and must, join together to create new lives, both for themselves together and for their children. While the beauty and power of these statements cannot be overstated, they beg the question of why Man and woman were not simply initially created together from the same source material. It seems an oddity that suddenly in the middle of the rest of the process of Creation ‘א essentially had to go back and change his previous design. However, as we shall see, Rabbinic thought did not see this as an oddity, but rather as a paradigm for much of creation, and a brief look at several midrashim will demonstrate that this paradigm, rather than just being a particular way to read the Torah, is actually an approach of great depth regarding the nature of existence.

The first time the midrashim note that maybe creation did not go quite according to ‘א’s original plan is what might be called “The Sin of the Earth.” In Bereishit 1:11, on the Third day of Creation, ‘א commanded that the earth should bring forth “fruit-bearing trees of fruit.” However, in the actual creation moment in verse 11, the earth simply brings forth “fruit-bearing trees.” The midrash[1] leaps upon this deviation and declares that, originally, the tree would have been just as edible as its fruit but the earth failed to produce such trees. Rashi, ad loc., goes so far as to describe this as the earth “sinning,” and says that this is why the ground is punished in the sin of Adam and Chava in Bereishit chapter 3.

A similar and perhaps even more extreme deviation is found in the midrashic understanding of the Fourth day of Creation. Bereishit 1:16 says, “א made the two great lights, the Greater Light to rule the day, and the Lesser Light to rule the night and the stars.” In the first half of the verse, the two lights are described as equally great, whereas in the latter half the Sun and the Moon are differentiated as “greater” and “lesser” respectively. Noting this distinction, the Gemara[2] says that originally the Sun and the Moon were equal in size and brightness. The gemara describes the Moon speaking before the Creator of the Universe, and asking, “Can two kings wear one crown?” essentially questioning the status quo wherein it and the Sun were equal. To this, the Master of the Universe replies, “Go and Diminish yourself.” The Moon, noting that ‘א did not actually deny the validity of its question, responds, “I spoke correctly, and now I must diminish myself?” to which ‘א responds, “Go and rule the night.” Essentially, this midrash states that any and all differentiation between the Sun and the Moon is purely a function of the temerity of the Moon in questioning ‘א’s plan. Originally there would simply have been two equal lights at all times.

While the query of the moon that leads to the lessening of its stature is not explicitly called a “sin”, one might be tempted to think of it as such. However, the approach of the Gemara[3] diverges radically from such an idea. Instead of blaming the Moon, the midrash puts the blame on ‘א. “Bring atonement upon me, for I diminished the Moon!” cries ‘א in the midrash. The Chatat offering brought on Rosh Chodesh is described in Bamidbar 28:15: “And these shall be one goat as a sin offering to ‘א, , to be offered in addition to the regular Olah offering and its pouring.” This Chatat is unique in being referred to as “to ‘א” and Resh Lakish, based on the ambiguity of the Hebrew prefix “ל-” that could mean “to” or “for”, understands this as being a sin-offering brought to atone for ‘א’s sin in diminishing the Moon. Thus, this departure from the original plan is great in that it cannot simply be punished, as with the Sin of the Earth, but must be actively atoned for.

Returning to Creation of Man, the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah sees this very paradigm in the tension between the first two chapters of Bereishit, expanding on and emphasizing the ideas inherent in the text. Whereas Bereishit 2 describes the creation of Man and Woman as two chronologically separate acts, Bereishit 1 describes them as happening at the same time. “And ‘א created Man in His image, in the Image of ‘א He created him; Male and Female He created them.” (1:27). This would seem to contradict the chronological process described in Bereishit 2, but instead, the midrash[4] sees the two depictions as two parts of a larger chronological process. “R’ Shmuel Bar Nahman says, ‘When ‘א created Man He created him with two faces.” According to R’ Shmuel Bar Nahman, Man and Woman were originally created as one entity, composed of the two of them fused back to back. Then, when it says in Bereishit 2 that ‘א took the man’s rib and made the woman from it, it really means that He removed her from man’s side and fashioned her as a distinct entity. In this conception, Bereishit 2:24, “Therefore man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh,” is not simply enabled by man and woman’s inherent sameness, but is in fact a return to their original state of existence. As opposed to the Sin of the Earth, which was punished, and the Sin of the Diminishing of the Moon, for which an atonement is made by man, the splitting of Man and Woman can actually be rectified. When man and woman take their places side by side and build a life together, they restore the original plan of creation.

This paradigm of breaking and repairing creation is what is known in Kabbalistic literature as the process of Shevirah and Tikkun, wherein the original creation is broken, and then the creation repairs itself. The creation must re-create itself, and in doing so, not only does the Creation become Creator[5], it also gains the ability to build and develop on its original structure[6]. The joining of a husband and wife in marriage is part of this process. In the midrashic depiction of Day Six, Man and Woman are one fused entity. After they are split in Bereishit 2:21-22, they are two distinct entities, and, though they “cling to each other,” they remain separate entities. As such, they exist in a relationship, and have the ability to work together and improve each other. Marriage is not simply a new stage in the lives of the newlywed husband and wife; marriage is a part of the process of building and rebuilding Creation.

 

[1] בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה ה סימן ט

[2] תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף ס עמוד ב

[3] Ibid.

[4] בראשית רבה ח:א

[5] ראי״ה קוק, אורות הקודש ב׳ עמ׳ תקכז

[6] רב שג״ר, כלים שבורים, ״ערכים ואמונה בעידן בפוסט-מודרני״

Parashat Balak 5774 – The Unmoved Mover vs. The Dynamic Relationship

לֹא אִישׁ אֵ’ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן-אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם

Parashat Balak describes Bnei Yisrael’s unknowing encounter with Balak, Midian’s new king (Bamidbar 22:4), and his countryman (22:5) Bilaam, a sorcerer of some repute. Balak asks Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, and, although he is initially forbidden by ‘א to do so (22:12), Bilaam goes. Three times they set up 7 altars and offer 7 rams and 7 cows, one on each, and then Bilaam receives a message from ‘א to present to Balak. While the first two times he desires to curse Bnei Yisrael, and instead blesses them, the third time he realizes that he has no option but to bless them, and does so intentionally. Despite this initial intention, Bilaam consistently states throughout the story that he will only be able to say and do that which ‘א tells him (22:18, 38; 23:3, 12, 26; 24:14). He is very clear that he himself cannot curse the people, but can only pronounce ‘א’s cursing them. Seeing as ‘א had already said that Bilaam “shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (22:12), it seems odd that he would try and curse them anyway. It is only after ‘א clearly states that He will not be changing His mind[1] (23:19) that Bilaam embraces his destiny to bless Bnei Yisrael (24:1).
It is not entirely surprising that Bilaam would have initially thought that ‘א’s mind could be changed. After all, in Bamidbar 22:12 ‘א tells him explicitly that he may not go and curse Bnei Yisrael, and then in 22:20 ‘א rather ambiguously states that Bilaam may go. Moreover, Tanakh depicts ‘א changing his mind pretty severely before the flood: “And the Lord regretted (וַיִּנָּחֶם) that He had made man on the earth, and He grieved in His heart,” (Bereishit 6:6). ‘א saw that mankind had become incredibly evil, and regretted their creation. This would seem to imply that ‘א might change His mind. However, in Bilaam’s second divinely-inspired speech to Balak, he explicitly contradicts this idea: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of[2] man, that He should regret (וְיִתְנֶחָם),” (Bamidbar 23:19). These two verses, using the exact same word, directly contradict each other.
The resolution might be found in looking at what exactly Bilaam did that he thought would change ‘א’s mind. When preparing each of the three times to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam had Balak erect 7 altars and bring a cow and a ram on each. When Bilaam comes before ‘א the first time, he says, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar,” (23:4). The seven altars are not random. For whatever reason, perhaps due the importance of the number 7 in both Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern thought, Bilaam thinks that these 7 sets of altars and offerings will influence ‘א’s intent. The second thing Bilaam does to change ‘א’s mind is change location. The first attempt is from Bamot-Baal (22:41), the second is from the Field of Tsophim, at the top of Pisgah (23:)14, and the third attempt is from the top of Peor (23:28). These methods are based on the pagan conception of the Divine, wherein the gods are subject to magical energy derived from the meta-divine realm, where the gods themselves get their power[3]. This is what ‘א is specifically rejecting in His statement that He “is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of man, that He should regret.”[4]
By contrast, ‘א elsewhere seems not only to suggest but to declare outright that His intent can be influenced by mankind’s actions.

At one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to break down, and to destroy it; But if that nation turns from their evil, because of which I have spoken against it, I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the evil that I thought to do to it. And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; but if it does evil in My sight, that it does not listen to My voice, then I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the good, with which I said I would benefit it. (Yirmiyahu 18:7-10)

‘א explicitly states that His decrees can be changed by man’s actions. However, it’s not a matter of incantations or offerings that creates this change. Instead it’s a matter of doing good versus doing evil.
‘א is not the “unmoved mover” of the philosophers. The Tanakh makes it very clear that ‘א is in a living and dynamic relationship with all of mankind in general, and with Bnei Yisrael in particular[5]. This means that the actions of mankind matter to Him, as these actions do not exist in a vacuum. However, He cares specifically about certain kinds of actions, those of ethics and morality, Torah and Mitzvot. This message comes across loud and clear throughout the words of Moshe and the prophets[6]. Man is not insignificant. Man is perhaps of the greatest significance. Man’s position at the end of the process of creation is meant to indicate the greatness of which man is capable. However, man is created on the same day as the animals to demonstrate that man can also sink to the level of the animals with great ease. With this great power comes ultimate responsibility. ‘א’s concern with us and our action obligates us to understand the great weight of our actions. Our actions are so important and powerful that they have the ability to influence even ‘א. But not through reciting meaningless incantations or performing magic rituals. It is the ethical life of man, lived in the framework of Torah and Mitzvot, with which ‘א fully concerns Himself.

[1] It’s difficult to reconcile the more philosophical, unchanging, way we think about ‘א with His depiction in Tanakh, but it is possible. However, that is beyond the scope of this essay, and for the purpose of the essay we will assume that, at the very least, the Tanakh does depict ‘א as changing.

[2] The “X, => Son of X” formula is a common form of emphasis in Tanakh. See Meir Weiss, The Bible from Within, “Neither a Prophet not the Son of a Prophet Am I”.

[3] Yehezkal Kaufmann, “The Religion of Israel”.

[4] This statement, verse 23:19, falls in the middle of Bilaam’s second speech to Balak. While he does still change location before the third speech, verse 23:28, he then realizes that he can’t change ‘א’s mind and that he might as well bless the people intentionally, verse 24:1.

[5] Bnei Yisrael have a specific, “covenantal” relationship with ‘א, a phrase with very important connotations, but beyond the scope of this essay.

[6] See Isaiah Chapter 1, for example.

“Baruch Dayan HaEmet”

“Baruch Dayan HaEmet.”

 

“Blessed is the True Judge.” “Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” “Blessed is the Judge [whose judgements are] True.”

 

This is a phrase we use to express sorrow and compassion at the loss of a human being. It means that on some level, we know there is a judge, and all is not chaos and randomness, even while we mourn. However, that’s not all it means. “Emet” is not a simple idea.

 

“Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create man, the ministering angels were divided into camps and factions. Some said, “Let Him create man;” others said, “Let Him not create man.” This corresponds to the verse: “Kindness and truth met; justice and peace came together” (Tehillim 85:11): Kindness said: “Let God create man, for he will perform acts of kindness.” Truth said, “Let Him not create man, for he will be full of deceit.” Justice said, “Let Him create man, for he will perform righteousness;” peace said, “Let Him not create him, for he will be full of divisiveness. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth, and cast it to the ground, as it says, “Truth will sprout from the earth.” (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1)

 

Emet, with a capital “T”, transcends human existence, and the two are not compatible. When we say, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” we are stating that what has occurred is not something that makes sense according to the logic of our existence. Something has happened we feel is not explainable, justifiable. We are not saying that it is ok because there is a plan, even if it beyond us. We are saying that we rage and we cry because we do not understand, because something has happened that it would be immoral to simply comprehend.

 

And finally, we are saying that when we cry and rage, when we mourn and fall apart, our voices do not simply echo into the void. There is a Judge who listens.

 

Parashat Hukat – Reasons and Messages

יַעַן לֹאהֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

Parashat Hukat is chock-full of interesting narratives. It includes several skirmishes with other nations (Bamidbar 21), the deaths of Miriam and Aharon (20), and a cryptic mention of a godly well in “B’Er” (21:16-18).  Perhaps the most well known of these stories is that of the sin of Aharon and Moshe. After Miriam’s death (20:1), Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon to complain about a lack of water (20:2-5), and ‘א commands Moshe and Aharon to bring water forth from a rock for the people (20:7-8). Moshe and Aharon seem to fulfill the command, but the reader is suddenly informed that they have actually failed to live up to ‘א’s expectations in this situation, when Moshe and Aharon receive a sharp reprimand.

“And the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon: ‘Since you did not trust[1] in Me, to make me holy before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them,” (20:12).

On a first read through, this punishment seems to come out of nowhere, as the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake is not at all clear. This has prompted commentators throughout the Jewish tradition to reread the passage with great attention to detail, finding all sorts of subtle clues, which point them toward the exact nature of the misdeed.

Quoting the Sifrei, Rashi notes that where ‘א had instructed Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock, when carrying out his command they instead struck the rock. Rambam rejects this and instead argues that Moshe’s sin was in becoming angry with the people. Ibn Ezra states that the problem was that they hit the rock twice instead of just once, as pointed out in verse 11, demonstrating a lack of faith that striking the rock only once would work. Ramban comments that all the above voices are “adding meaningless statements to meaningless statements,” and instead argues that the issue was one of phrasing; Moshe and Aharon’s statements to the people suggested that it was they, and not ‘א, who would bring forth water from the rock. Abarbanel quotes these and six other reasons mentioned by various commentators, including an opinion from the gemara that Moshe and Aharon actually did not sin, before settling on the one he thinks is correct. Topping Abarbanel’s ten, Shadal[2] quotes thirteen different opinions regarding the nature of Aharon and Moshe’s mistake. The number of opinions regarding the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake has increased over time, not lessened, clouding the true meaning of the text.

Shadal, in his comments on the passage, remarked that, “Moshe Rabbeinu only sinned one sin, but the commentators burdened upon him 13 sins and more, for each one invented of his own heart a new sin.” The only evidence the text gives of a mistake on the parts of Moshe and Aharon is the rebuke they receive for it. Once the existence of the mistake has been stated, the reader then has to go back and try and piece together what that mistake might have been from errant clues and seemingly extraneous parts of the text. The only thing that is clear from the text is that the text is unclear. ‘א’s statement in 20:12 that Moshe and Aharon did not trust Him and therefore did not make Him holy in the eyes of the people is confusingly followed by the words of 20:13, “These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was made holy with them.” Not only is the nature of the misdeed Aharon and Moshe committed unclear, what effect it might have had is also unclear. The one thing that the text conveys clearly is Moshe and Aharon failed to properly trust in ‘א, and that was the cause of the problem

A comparison can be drawn to a similarly unclear text in the story of Akeidat Yitschak (Bereishit 22:1-19). The biblical text goes beyond its normal silence regarding the persons and places involved, into true silence regarding the nature of this “test”[3] and its taker. Consequently, the range of opinions regarding the actual nature of the test have differed greatly. Rambam, making it a test of tension between ‘א’s will and man’s, says that the command to Avraham came through and absolutely clear prophecy, and that Avraham had merely to follow through with it. The somewhat antinomian Mei HaShiloah says the opposite, that the actual nature of the test was to follow an unclear and questionable prophecy. The debate about the nature of the test is so great that commentators can’t even agree as to whether or not Avraham passed. The Meshekh Hokhmah[4], basing himself on Rashi’s comments on 22:2, actually says that Avraham failed in this test, and many thinkers have since followed in his footsteps. Throughout all of these opinions, however, one thing has remained clear: “Now I know that you revere ‘א” is a positive statement, and is the foundation of the promises to Avraham that follow (Bereishit 22:15-18). The exact nature of the test isn’t nearly as important as the proof of Avraham’s reverence for ‘א. All the more so by the sin of Aharon and Moshe, where the lack of clarity is so much greater, what is important is not exactly what they did that was wrong, but that they did it due to a lack of trust in ‘א.

Moshe and Aharon were put in a tough situation, where it would be difficult for a person to know quite what to do. They even had the benefit of ‘א’s direct guidance, and they still acted incorrectly. Today we are often put in such situations, where the correct path is not clear, and we lack the aid of prophecy to show us the way. As such, the lack of clarity in the text of Bamidbar 20 is not stymying but enervating. It is the same lack of clarity that we face in our everyday lives. While we do not face the same difficulties as the great leaders of generations past, we are posed the same challenge. We can act out of trust in ‘א or we can fail to do so. When the horizon seems darkest we do not know which path to take, but trying to live up to this responsibility, trying to let our actions flow from total trust in ‘א, can be the light that guides our way.

 

[1] Throughout this composition, the hebrew word “אמונה”, generally translated as “faith” or “belief”, has been translated instead as “trust”, which more accurately reflects its meaning in Tanakh, and early Jewish usage.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadal

[3] It’s worth noting that Rashbam says “And ‘א tested Avraham,” 22:1, should actually be understood as “And ‘א punished Avraham.”

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meir_Simcha_of_Dvinsk