The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Elementary Versus Simple

Euclid calls his book The Elements (Στοιχεῖα) because it covers what he felt to be the elementary ideas in geometry. Paul uses the term (in the Textus Receptus) in his Epistle to the Hebrews:
"[Jesus was c]alled of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec. Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles (στοιχεῖα) of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." [Hebrews 5: 10-14].

So it could be claimed that Euclid regarded his book as the milk, and not solid food. This might not be the most productive attitude to take towards The Elements without a few caveats, so I will make them here.

Mathematics is a difficult subject; indeed it might be the most difficult mental discipline yet discovered. So the "milk" is sufficiently difficult to grasp that it might be counter-productive to regard it as food for infants except insofar as a baby's teeth don't grow in until she has subsided on milk for some time. In this sense, Euclid is trying to help the reader develop teeth, and that is not an easy thing to do. Much of The Elements is very difficult, and requires patience, persistence and deliberation in order to master.

The zenith of Greek mathematics was in spatial geometry, the use of algebraic curves to solve various equations, and in number theory. Much of this work is considerably more difficult than anything found in The Elements (Apollonius of Perga's Conic Sections comes to mind here). But more important than the level of difficulty is the order of presentation. Euclid teaches, in this book, what he feels should come first in a mathematics education. He starts with ten axioms (he would say five common notions and five postulates, but I will cover the difference between these terms in another post). From these, he builds his method of constructions, which he will use to prove various results.

Modern readers of Euclid can be discouraged by the fact that many of the results in The Elements are not easy. They assume that what comes first pedagogically should be easier than that which builds upon that which comes first, and while that is often true, there is no reason why that should always be so.

This was clear to Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who in his two-year course in basic physics given at Cal Tech, included a lecture with an elementary proof that Newton's inverse square law of gravitational attraction implied that bodies in space orbit larger bodies with an elliptical orbit with the larger body at one focus. In writing the lecture, Feynman only used mathematics that Newton and Kepler would have had access to (excluding calculus). The result uses some very subtle results from the theory of conic sections (which were known to Apollonius of Perga, as well as Newton and Kepler), and uses the techniques of Greek geometry, but it remains a very difficult proof. He warned his listeners that elementary does not mean simple. And I do likewise.

So, what did Euclid consider to be elementary? The first book of The Elements is devoted to two important tasks: creating a system of definitions and axioms sufficient to the task of creating all geometry, and proving the Pythagorean Theorem in the famous 47th Proposition. The second book is devoted to algebraic results that use geometrical constructions. The third book is devoted to the geometry of circles. The fourth book covers the construction of various equilateral polygons. The fifth book introduces the concepts of magnitudes and proportions. The sixth book explores similar (or proportionate) geometrical figures. The seventh book defines the number one and from there all whole numbers, including odd and even numbers, prime and composite numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squares and cubes of numbers, greatest common divisors and least common multiples, what modern mathematicians call the theory of numbers. The next two books cover more number theory. The tenth book covers the theory of irrational numbers, or what Euclid called incommensurate magnitudes. The eleventh book introduces solid (or three-dimensional) geometry and the theory of solids. The twelfth book covers how to measure volumes. The thirteenth book introduces the five Platonic solids, and shows that there are only five such solids.

When one asks a child what is the most basic fact in mathematics, they are likely to tell you that 1 + 1 = 2. But Euclid doesn't cover that until the seventh book. To Euclid, lines, angles, circles, triangles and other planar figures are more elementary than numbers. To Euclid, the Pythagorean Theorem is the first deep result in mathematics (although the pons asinorum precedes it), and Euclid streamlines his presentation to present the Pythagorean Theorem (and the pons asinorum) as succinctly as possible and yet have the framework created hold up the rest of geometry.

The pons asinorum (Latin for "bridge of asses"), the proof that in an isosceles triangle, the two angles at the base of the triangle are congruent, is the first theorem in The Elements (Book I, Proposition 5) not used as a stepping stone to something bigger (such a proposition is called a lemma in modern parlance). Incidentally, the term pons asinorum has come to mean any test that separates the less intelligent from the more intelligent. The assumption was that if a student hit the wall with the pons asinorum, chances were he was unsuited for higher learning. In that sense, the pons asinorum is elementary, but not simple.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Who was Euclid?

Euclid (Εὐκλείδης) of Alexandria (fl. c. 300 BCE), was the author of many books of geometry, the most popular of which is the 13-volume Elements. Most of the biographical information we have about Euclid comes from the geometer Pappus of Alexandria (c. 290 - c. 350 CE), and from the neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus (412 - 485 CE). In the centuries between Euclid's life and the lives of those who wrote about is life, very little practical information survived. We know that much of what they wrote about Euclid of Alexandria came from information about his predecessor, the Socratic philosopher Euclid of Megara (c. 435 - c. 365 BCE), and had nothing to do with Euclid of Alexandria. That makes it rather difficult to discuss the author of the Elements, leaving the text itself as the only true testament.

Euclid taught at the Musaeum, the great learning complex at Alexandria that included the famous Library. We know that he was a big influence on Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287 - c. 212 BCE), perhaps the greatest mathematician of antiquity, but whether the two of them ever met in unclear. Archimedes comments on Euclid's works, so he had clearly studied them.

Euclid wrote many works of geometry, and also geometric optics, music theory, logic and fallacies, mechanics, and some advanced mathematics as well. His four-volume work on conic sections, which unfortunately does not survive, was a great influence on Apollonius of Perga (c. 262 - c. 190 BCE), whose definitive eight-volume treatment remained definitive through the time of Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton, and contributed greatly to the invention of analytical physics by these men.

Much of what we know of Euclid comes from Pappus of Alexandria and Proclus. Pappus of Alexandria was a very brilliant geometer and arithmetician who wrote an eight-volume compendium, called the Collection (or Synagoge) of all mathematics known at his time. Pappus is considered to be the last truly great mathematician in the Greek tradition.

Proclus was a neo-Platonic philosopher in the tradition of Plotinus. Recall that it was Plotinus who described how the One emanates into our world: "from a point to a line; from a line to a superfice, and from a superfice to a solid". Proclus left a lucrative law career to become a philosopher, studying at Plato's Academy, and eventually becoming the head of the Academy. He lived in Athens as a vegetarian and a bachelor, leaving from time to time to visit various mystery schools in his attempt to become a "priest of the entire universe," embracing all monotheistic traditions universally. Most of Proclus' writings are commentaries on Plato's dialogues, or works of theology or philosophy of his own. However, because Plato's Academy had a requirement: "let none ignorant of geometry enter here," all beginning students were required to study geometry, and Proclus became the Academy's geometry tutor. From his course notes, he compiled a commentary on the first volume of the Elements, and flavored his commentary with much philosophical speculation and historical anecdotes. It is not clear if Proclus commented on any other books of the Elements.

In a sense, if the Elements are to be true to their elementary nature, it is not necessary to know who the man Euclid was. His great gift to humanity was to take all the knowledge that came before him and systematize it in a pedagogically sound way. It is a tribute to the soundness of his work that he chose to offer his presentation in such a way that the work hides any personal affectation.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Elements of Euclid: A Prolegomena

If you spend enough time in Masonic discussion groups, you will find Masons who are interested in Kabbalah, in astrology, in alchemy, in Tarot and many other arcane sciences. Some are very knowledgeable in these fields, and are keenly aware of how these areas of knowledge shape Masonic ritual; but many more, while they might be eager to learn, do not yet know much about these fields. Do these fields have an influence on Masonic ritual? Quite clearly they do, although more as allusions than as central sources. These ideas are very attractive to the esoteric Mason, and the tantalizing hints in our ritual dropped by Preston, Webb, Cross, Gleason and others make the Masonic study of these fields something like a treasure hunt.

And yet, there are things explicitly in our ritual that are of profound spiritual importance that we seem not to notice. We don't have to speculate as to whether the authors of our ritual intended for us to contemplate these ideas; they tell us directly to study them. I would like to see more works of Masonic spirituality take advantage of what is explicitly in our ritual for topics of study that will both enlighten us and make us better Masons.

Tom Worrell's essay, A Spiritual Vision of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, published in Ahiman: A Review of Masonic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 1 is a good example of this. We all know that Fellows of the Craft are told during their Passing that they are to study the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences for the rest of their lives, and to thereby improve themselves in Masonry. But how many do? The essay gives us an inroad into starting a study of these arts and sciences, and an excellent explanation of the spiritual imperatives for doing so.

In that spirit, I would like to engage in an extended study of The Elements of Euclid. Although our ritual talks about Pythagoras, it mentions the 47th Problem of Euclid (actually, Proposition 47 of Book I of The Elements). Until about 1900, an educated man studied The Elements in every society that had access to the text. We know that the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks and Europeans studied The Elements, and there are translations and commentaries on Euclid in every major language in the Indo-European language family. Therefore, pretty much all the framers of Freemasonry studied Euclid. Preston tells us that of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, Geometry is most essential to Masonry. He even goes so far as to say that Geometry is Masonry. No Mason can claim ignorance of Geometry, and yet few Masons actually study Geometry. I would like to change that. I would like to use my years of mathematics education, both as a student and as a teacher, to encourage Masons (and people in general) to gain a grasp of this subject so central to both Operative and Speculative Masonry, and give them a hand getting started.

To this end, I'm going to be blogging about The Elements a lot for a while. I'm also going to be preparing a Euclid class. While I encourage Masons to attend, there will be nothing in my Euclid class that would violate my Obligation for a non-Mason to hear, and so I'm going to open it to whomever wants to attend, and do the work. Over the next few months, I am going to blog about Euclid, and especially The Elements, a lot. If you want to follow along, I cannot recommend more highly the three-volume paperback translation by Sir Thomas L. Heath, published by Dover. I am not sure a more exhaustive annotated version exists in English. I will also be using an online version. My goal is to make reading Euclid easier for someone without a background in geometry, so that they can tackle this work of immense profundity.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Corn, Wine and Oil: The Torah Commentary

I spent the last Jewish year writing a Masonic Torah commentary, week by week, getting in each submission before Shabbat on that week. The result comes out to 61600 words, and I have presented the whole thing, unedited, in this post.


Bereshit: Cain and Abel

Sunday, October 23, 2011
Last Thursday was Simchat Torah, the day that Jews celebrate having finished the yearly cycle of Torah readings. We read the final lines of Deuteronomy, and the first lines of Genesis, thus starting the cycle over again. The first Sabbath after Simchat Torah, we study the first Torah portion. Bereshit (Hebrew for "in the beginning) covers the first six chapters of Genesis, up until the introduction of Noah, but before mention of the Flood.

There's a lot there; far too much to go over in a week, and far too much to discuss in one blog post. My rabbi likes to say that every time you reread a Torah portion after Simchat Torah, especially having gone through dozens of such cycles, it's always a pleasant surprise to find something new. And yet we do every time. We walk around thinking we know what's in the Bible, but often the Bible surprises us. We think we know the stories in Genesis by heart, but they are more subtle than we think.

What is the story of Cain and Abel? Pause for a moment and tell the story to yourself.

The story you told yourself probably goes something like this:

After being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve has a son named Cain, and then has another son named Abel. Cain grows up to be a farmer, and Abel grows up to be a herdsman. Both brothers offer their produce to God. God accepts Abel's sacrifice and disregards Cain's sacrifice. Cain in a jealous rage murders his brother. God asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain replies, "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?"

God replies that He can hear the voice of Abel's blood crying up from the ground. God interprets the voice of the blood as cursing Cain. Cain can no longer farm, and is to be a wanderer and a fugitive for the rest of his life. Cain complains that his punishment is too harsh for him to bear, and God provides him with a mark that will protect him from being murdered, warning Cain's potential future assailants that they will be avenged sevenfold for slaying Cain. Cain leaves the presence of God (literally, he departs from the face of YHVH), and moves to the Land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain finds a wife (how?) and builds a city and had sons and many generations of men, including Tubal-cain six generations later. There's a strange story about Tubal-cain's father, Lamech, who kills two people (in what might be self-defense in each instance, although the second person only bruised him).

The story thread ends there and the Bible returns to the story of Adam and Eve with the birth of Seth, and the Genesis narrative continues from there.

Have I left anything out? Yes, I have left two lines: Genesis 4: 6-7. In the original Hebrew, the narrative goes from prose to poetry for these two lines, which is always a sign that the verses are of importance. Between God rejecting Cain's sacrifice, and Cain's murder of Abel, there are the following two verses, in poetic form (linebreaks from the JPS version of the Masoretic text):
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-קָיִן 

:לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ

הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת 

וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב 

לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ 

וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ 

:וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ 

The King James Bible translates these verses the following way:
And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
It is worth pointing out how unique this case of Divine intervention is. God speaks to Adam and Eve, then Cain, then Noah, then the Patriarchs. God speaks to Cain twice, before and after the murder of Abel. When God disregards Cain's sacrifice, Cain becomes very angry, and his face falls (that's the literal translation: his face falls). Then God speaks to Cain. He checks Cain's anger.

The previous verses have been used to argue that God intends for people to eat meat, because He disregards a grain sacrifice and accepts a meat sacrifice. But Cain's sacrifice is disregarded because of his attitude rather than the substance of the sacrifice. Cain's reaction reveals his poor attitude. God notices this and warns him that he has the power to try again with a better attitude, and that he has the power to effect a pleasing result. He warns Cain that if he fails to check his poor attitude, he has provided an opening for offensive behavior ("sin lieth at the door") to overwhelm his self-control. For sinfulness longs to master him, God warns, but with self-control Cain can master his sinful urges.

This is beautiful and so delicate. God lovingly steps in to remind Cain that his anger has put him in profound spiritual peril, and He pleads for Cain to master himself and his rage. That Cain does not heed God's advice does not make that Divine intervention less precious.

I think Cain surprised God when he murdered his brother, just as his father and mother surprised God when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of the difference between good and bad. God pleads for Cain to regain his own personal dignity. God cannot regard a sacrifice provided with the wrong spirit. Even though God disregards Cain's sacrifice, God has not disregarded Cain himself. God wants Cain not only to try again to do the sacrifice right, He wants Cain to learn to subdue his passions and improve himself.

The sages of the Talmud tell us that the world stands on three things: Torah, worship of the One, and acts of lovingkindness [Pirkei Avot, 1: 2]. The Torah had not yet been revealed to the world in Cain's day, but God is trying to teach Cain about the other two pillars of human existence. And teach us.

Noach: Horror or Cute Animals?

Monday, October 31, 2011
My synagogue celebrates the week that we read the part of the Torah, Parashat Noach, where the story of Noah and the Ark is told, by having a special Children's Sabbath. There are always adorable pictures of the elephant trunks and giraffe necks sticking out of the Ark. Kids are encouraged to name all the animals collected on the Ark. I find myself suffering a cognitive disconnect when I see the sense of celebration, because Noah was one of a handful of survivors of the worst genocide in the Bible.

Parashat Noach gives us the story of Noah, the righteous man who was blameless in his age, who walked with God. The rest of humankind stood in contrast to Noah's righteousness. The daughters of men bred with divine beings and created a race of Nephilim. The Bible tells us the daughters of men bred with b'nei Ha-Elohim. While Elohim is one of the names of God, it is also used to mean gods, being used both as a singular and as a plural noun. Nephilim are mysterious. The word is translated variously as giants, as heroes, and as fallen angels, since the Hebrew root נפל means "to fall". Some rabbis interpret the Nephilim as the descendants of Cain.

God gives up on humankind, due to the wickedness of man, and regrets that He ever created them. Think about that. How awful must they have been for God to give up on them completely, and to blot them out from all existence, along with all beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky? Almost as an afterthought, Noah finds favor with God.

The rabbis are critical of Noah. They worry that he did not do enough to save people from the Flood. He saved himself, his sons and their wives. The rabbis contrast this with Abraham, who begs for the lives of righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah whom he does not even know, or Moses, who begs for the lives of the entire Children of Israel when God wants to destroy them. They seize upon the phrase "blameless in his age" and argues that in another, more contemporary age, Noah might not be considered blameless, but compared to how evil the antediluvians were, he was comparatively blameless [Bereshit Rabbah, 30: 9].

God destroys humanity, with the exception of Noah and his family. God destroys all the animals, with the exception of the samples saved on the Ark. I have a tendency to dwell upon the awfulness of this event, because it seems weirdly trivialized in most depictions of the story. God drowns almost all living things that breathe air. The ancient Hebrews believed that land masses sat on top of a primordial ocean that could sweep across all land and drown the world. This is discussed in Jon Levenson's book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil. An experimenter can pour bleach on a Petri dish and kill the bacteria growing on it. A laboratory can inject all the rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees and dogs and rabbits and rats and mice with poison and kill the entire population (thwarting an epidemic, for example). But in contrast to these minor massacres, God killed everyone and everything, with the exception of a tiny sample. How can this not be regarded with horror?

The Flood eventually recedes, and Noah came out of the Ark onto dry land, and sacrificed one of each kosher animal and bird in burnt offerings. God smelled the "pleasing odor" and it moved Him to resolve never again to doom the earth because of man. Why? "The devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth." [Genesis 8: 21]. He learns something about humanity: that as we become autonomous entities, we are going to do wrong as well as right. That with free will comes bad decisions. A baby is an unformed entity unshaped into a personality. But you can watch kindergarteners play in the playground and see that some of them are already mean people. Some have all the personality flaws that adults do. They are evil from their youth.

God gives Noah seven laws to live by, which are called the Noachide Laws. Jews believe they are the only laws in the Torah applicable to all people regardless of their association with the Jewish people.

  1. Remember who God is, and do not worship something lesser that God Himself.
  2. Human beings are created in the image of God. Do not murder human beings. Masons use this in the ritual of the Third Degree, using the verse "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." [Genesis 9: 6].
  3. Do not steal the property of other people. Do not deprive others of subsistence.
  4. Be ethical and consensual in your sexual relationships. Some people interpret this to be a ban on homosexuality or sex outside of marriage, but I do not.
  5. Do not defile the sacred, or blaspheme the name of God.
  6. Do not eat the flesh of another human being, nor eat the flesh of an animal taken while the animal is still alive. Some people interpret this to mean that the ingestion of blood is forbidden, but I do not.
  7. Courts of law should be established, and people should abide by the rule of law. I interpret this similarly to the theme of Aeschylus's Oresteia, where Athena demands that the Greek people mete out justice not by vendetta, but by impartial courts of law, unbiased on either side.
To enshrine these laws, God sets a rainbow in the clouds, as a sign of this covenant with humankind. The rainbow is not for us, but for God: "When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh." (Genesis 9: 14-15). I find that very interesting. Why does God need a reminder not to kill all of us? Without the reminder, how often does God want to slaughter us? Chris Rock joked that if you haven't thought about murdering your partner; if you haven't planned out the murder and planned where you would dispose the body and what you would say to the investigating detectives, then you haven't really been in love. To what extent is that the nature of God's love for us? We must frustrate God beyond imagining.

There are Jews and non-Jews who hold the seven Noachide Laws as being the basis of all ethical behavior. Chabad sponsors a group that seeks to encourage all non-Jews of their own free will to pledge to live by these laws.

The parashah also covers the Tower of Babel, which should be of interest to Freemasons, especially contrasted with the Temple at Jerusalem. I don't have much to say about the Tower of Babel right now. Maybe some other time. The parashah ends by introducing Terah of Ur (one of the largest cities of the ancient world), who with his son Abram and his grandson Lot (son of Haran), moved away from Ur on a journey to Canaan. Along the journey, they settled in ?aran (not to be confused with Terach's son).

Lech Lecha: Melchizedek and Initiation

Wednesday, November 2, 2011
This week's torah portion, Lech L'cha, gives us the start of the story of Abraham, back when he was young, when his name was Abram. I wrote about this back in May. Bereshit Rabbah tells the story that Abram's father, Terach, made pagan idols for a living. One day, Terach went away and left Abram to mind the idol store.  A woman came to the shop with a plate of flour as a sacrifice for the idols. Abram took a stick and smashed all the idols in his father's shop, and put the stick in the largest idol's hand. When his father returned, he demanded that Abram explain what had happened. Abram explained that the idols had fought amongst each other over the plate of flour, and the largest idol smashed the others with the stick. His father said, "Do you take me for a fool? Are these idols sentient beings?" Abram responded, "Listen to what you just said. You deny they are sentient, and yet you worship them." [Bereshit Rabbah, 38: 13].

The rabbis considered Abram to be the first monotheist, but the story in the Torah is more subtle than that. The early Hebrews were henotheists, worshipping one God but allowing for the existence of others.

When Abram was seventy-five years old, God spoke to him and told him to leave his father's house, and for doing so, God would make him a great man, and the progenitor of a mighty nation: "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." [Genesis 12: 2-3].

He took his cousin Lot, his wife Sarai, and "and the souls [living things] that they had gotten in Haran" and left for Canaan ("v'et ha-nefesh asher asu v'Charan"), to the city of Shechem [Genesis 12: 5]. The men who worked for Abram did not get along with the men who worked for Lot, and in the interests of peace, Lot agreed to leave Abram's household and moved to Sodom, on the cities of the plain. Left alone, Abram got caught up in a regional war after the combatants captured Lot in his new city. Defeating the captors, he put an end to the war, and rescued the king of Sodom. The Bible describes the celebration:
And Melchizedek king of Salem [Jerusalem] brought forth bread and wine: and he [was] the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed [be] Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. [Genesis 14: 18-20].
There is a tradition that Melchitzedek (righteous or saintly king) initiated Abram into the Mysteries, and converted him from a henotheist to a monotheist. He initiated the ceremony of blessing with bread and wine. There is a midrash that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Adam, who did not die as the Bible suggested, but lived on far longer, initiating selected people worthy of the highest Mysteries.

The York Rite, in the Chair degree for the High Priest of a Royal Arch chapter, places great value in this legend (as do the Latter-Day Saints faiths). In Psalm 110, David writes about the future Messiah: "The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: 'Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.'" Since then, Christians have used this as the basis for a legend that Melchitzedek initiated Christ. Paul writes of Melchitzedek: "First being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was." [Hebrews 7: 2-4].

I think a lot about Melchitzedek, and what comprises the Melchizedek initiation. In the Jewish tradition, Melech (king) is one of the names of God. The word for "righteous man" in Hebrew is Tzaddik, and Deuteronomy 16: 20, which in English is "That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee," in Hebrew is "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.". The first two words, "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק", transliterated as "Tsedek, tsedek," are often translated as "Justice, justice." When words are repeated in the Torah, it is used for emphasis. The Kabbalists pay special attention to words that are repeated, believing them to hold special information to those who meditate on their significance.

Saintliness is attributed to the highest form of humanity, but both God and certain men are described as righteous. In a sense, the name Melchizedek is a formula that bridges the gap between God and man, through righteousness and justice. I interpret the Melchizedek initiation as the revelation that God and man collaborate in establishing justice in this world, and the revelation that that thread that connects each man to his Creator is always in place, and is tangible to those who reflect upon its existence.

This World is on Fire

Monday, May 2, 2011
I am going to present a metaphor, a mixed metaphor. It's going to a mixture of two images that have never been brought together before. One is ancient and one is modern. Only when the two are brought together does it describe my current state, a state I've been in somewhat latently for a while, and acutely since I lost my job.

When I visited Norway last year, I visited a Jewish community that met once a month, led by a very bright Israeli man. We prayed and worshiped together, and afterwards, he presented a Torah lesson for us. To a religious Jew, Torah can mean any religious study. My host's Torah lesson was from Bereshit Rabbah, the ancient Rabbinic commentary on the Book of Genesis (called Sefer Bereshit in Hebrew, after the first word in the book "in the beginning", which is one word in Hebrew). The five books of Moses, which are most commonly referred to as "The Torah", are partitioned into 54 weekly portions, following the Hebrew Calendar. The third portion is called Lech Lecha, (לֶךְ-לְךָ ), which means "Go!" or "Leave!" but because it is repeated, the Hasidic rabbis interpret it to mean "Go, go away towards yourself." I favor this psychoanalytic interpretation, and I will use it in what follows.

Lech Lecha is Genesis 12:1 to 17:27. The previous portion, Noach, is the story of Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel, and ends with the story of Terah, the father of Abraham. They lived in Ur, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, in Sumeria. Genesis 11:31 tells us: "And Terah took Abram [later Abraham] his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son's son, and Sarai [later Sarah] his daughter in law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there."

Charan was an Assyrian city in Turkey, pretty far away from Mesopotamia. In the ancient world, few people had traveled that far in their lives. Terah was going from one civilization to another. But this is not sufficient for God, nor for Abram. Lech Lecha begins (Genesis 12: 1-3): "Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed."

God leads Abram and Sarai and Lot to Canaan, renames Abram as Abraham, and provides him with the Covenant. The destiny of all of the Abrahamic Faiths is distinguished in this, and it cannot be emphasized more highly as a pivotal moment in the history of religion, and the invention of Semitic monotheism.

The section of Bereshit Rabbah pertaining to Lech Lecha begins by asking why Abram had to leave his father and his father's house, and set out on his own [Bereshit Rabbah, 39: 1]. Rabbi Isaac, by way of an explanation, relates a parable:

There is a man, a traveling man. He travels through cities, and he travels through forests. He travels through deserts and great wildernesses. He comes upon a city (or it could be translated as a palace) on fire. He enters the burning city, and looking around,  he cries out, "Is there no owner, no master of this city?" From a burning balcony, a man appears, and calmly states, "I am the owner. I am the master of this city."

Similarly, Rabbi Isaac tells us, Abraham cried out, "Is it possible that this world is without a guide?" and God replied to Abraham, "I am the Guide, the Master of Universe."

This left me and the other guests pretty baffled. We spent about ninety minutes discussing what the parable could mean, and left somewhat unconfirmed that we understood it. Why didn't the owner try to escape from the flames and save himself? How could he be the master if he couldn't or wouldn't put out the fire? Was the fire part of the master's plan, or the catastrophe it certainly appeared to be, or both?

And yet, like much of Torah, I could not drop the issue. I struggled with the parable, taking it out now and then to ponder further, not making much resolution with it, but engrossed nonetheless.

Six months later, my synagogue was reading Lech Lecha aloud as our weekly Torah portion. After services, during the Kiddush, I was in a conversation with my rabbi's husband, himself a rabbi who trains rabbis at a rabbinical school. I brought up the parable from Bereshit Rabbah, and asked him what it meant. With a smile, he told me that, like so much of Jewish religious literature, much hinges on how we translate the words. The word in Hebrew that gets translated as "on fire" can also be translated as "illuminated", with the connotation of the beauty inherent in illumination. Let's try Rabbi Isaac's parable again, with this new translation:

There is a man, a traveling man. He travels through cities, and he travels through forests. He travels through deserts and great wildernesses. He comes upon a city (or it could be translated as a palace) beautifully illuminated. He enters the glowing city, and looking around,  he cries out, "Is there no owner, no master of this city?" From a balcony, beautifully lit up, a man appears, and calmly states, "I am the owner. I am the master of this city."

Similarly, Rabbi Isaac tells us, Abraham cried out, "Is it possible that this world is without a guide?" and God replied to Abraham, "I am the Guide, the Master of Universe." 

Totally changes the meaning, don't you think?

The rabbi warned me, however. If you just interpret the parable to be a city on fire, you only understand the parable but partially. If you just interpret the parable to be a glowing, illuminated city, you only understand the parable but partially. To fully understand the parable, you have to superimpose both interpretations onto the story. The city is burning out of control in a destructive blaze, and is simultaneously glowing with a beatific glow of illumination. Both interpretations are simultaneously true. The world is spiraling out of control in a chaotic blaze, and the world is a breathtakingly beautiful precious gem, scintillating in your palm in peace and calmness. Both are always true all the time. And God is the Master of it all. And Abraham was the first man to recognize this.

The second image comes from an Amiri Baraka poem, I believe, although it has been twenty years since the first and only time I heard it. I'm sure my gentle readers will correct me about the source of the poem if I am mistaken.

Ornette Coleman is a jazz saxophonist, an avant garde composer and stylist who shocked the jazz community when he first appeared in the late 1950s with his free jazz style. He moved to Los Angeles from Fort Worth, Texas, and he was so poor that he could not afford a brass saxophone. Instead, he played a plastic saxophone. His sound was so strange, and his appearance so ragged, that nobody in the LA jazz community thought he was legitimate. To them, his plastic saxophone just added insult to injury, and nobody would play with him. During the day, he worked in a warehouse, often taking the elevator to an abandoned floor so that he could practice playing sax for hours. He lived in Watts, and after a while, he got gigs in Hollywood, playing in front of a mainly white audience who regarded him as a novelty. He was so poor that he would walk home from gigs, all the way from Hollywood to Watts.

He was walking home from a Hollywood gig with his plastic saxophone when the 1965 Watts riots erupted. Baraka's poem describes Ornette's long odyssey from Hollywood back to his home in Watts, guarding his plastic saxophone as his neighborhood erupts in flame and rage all around him, policemen swinging truncheons, shop windows shattering, cars and buildings on fire all around him, returning to his squalid digs and his poor, destroyed neighborhood.

I lost my job. My last day is next Friday. I feel a song, a theme, a vision in my heart, a world-shattering paradigm about to erupt in chaos out of my heart and fingers and voice. But to my colleagues in my industry, I'm an strange guy with a plastic saxophone making sounds nobody understands. Each day, I walk home from my fish-out-of-water gig through a city on fire, burning, but also a city beautifully illuminated, glowing, magical. With a throbbing heart, I see this beautiful, horrible, magnificent, tragic city all around me and I ask, "Is there no owner, is there no Master of this city?" and I strain to hear the Master's reply.

Vayeirah: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

Thursday, November 10, 2011
At the end of the last Parashah, Abraham and all the men in his extended family, their servants and employees all get circumcised. Recuperating, God in the image of three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, visits him. This is where the Jewish mitzvah of visiting the sick comes from. Interestingly the angels in the Torah are referred to as "men" or "strangers", but very rarely as angels. And yet it is understood that they are angels [Bereshit Rabbah, 48: 9]. Even in his recuperative pain, Abraham leaps up and runs to receive the angels as his guest, which the Talmud explains by saying that the angel Raphael ("God's healing") healed Abraham [Bava Metzia, 86b]. He gives them bread and water, tells Sarah to make them wheat cakes, wanders into the flock to select a young calf to slaughter, and gets milk, cheese, and butter to serve the angels. From this, Jews are taught to be hospitable to strangers, who might secretly be angels.

God has two astonishing pieces of news for Abraham. The first is that his wife, in her nineties and well past menopause, will give birth to a son. Sarah hears the angel Michael telling Abraham this, and she laughs in surprise. This startles the angel: "Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh."

I love this exchange. It's so human, and shows that God back then was still unused to interacting with humans.

Because of Sarah's reaction, the boy will be named Yitzchak (laughter in Hebrew), the name which is Anglicized as Isaac.

The second piece of news, given by the angel Gabriel, is that God intends to destroy the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, because their citizens are cruel and inhospitable. The midrash tells a story that Abraham's servant, Eliezer, went to visit Lot in Sodom and was caught giving food to a beggar on the street. A Sodomite threw a stone at Eliezer, making him bleed. The Sodomite took Eliezer to court over the incident, and the Sodomite judge found Eliezer guilty of receiving a bloodletting without paying the bloodletter. In response,  Eliezer then struck the judge in the forehead with a stone and asked the judge to pay the Sodomite [Sanhedrin, 109b].

Another midrash tells that Lot's daughter, Paltith, encountered a poor man who had entered the city, and was now starving to death because he had no money for food. Each morning as Paltith went to collect water, she would hide bread in her bucket and sneak it to the starving man. After a few weeks, the Sodomites were astonished that the man had not died, and began to suspect that someone was feeding him. The caught Paltith giving bread to him, and as a punishment, stripped her naked, smeared her all over with honey, and strung her up at the gates of the city until the bees had removed her flesh. Her piteous cries were what God was referring to in the Scripture when He told Abraham, "Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know." [Sanhedrin, 109a].

Note the cry, which echoes Exodus 2: 23-4: "And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob."

It also echoes Ima Shalom in the Talmud: "I have this tradition from my father's house: All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings." This is interpreted to mean that even when God closes the gates on a person, such as in cases of excommunication, the pain that person experiences can penetrate the gates, and their cries will still be heard. [Baba Metzia, 59b].

Despite the notoriety of these wicked cities, Abraham intercedes on behalf of the people of the cities of the plain. "And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
 Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" [Genesis, 18: 23-5].

Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
 הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט

"Hashofet kol-ha'arets lo ya'aseh mishpat." The three letter sequence in Hebrew Shin-Peh-Teth is given as "shofet", meaning judge, and also gives "mishpat", meaning a just decree. Abraham is challenging God, ha-shofet kol ha'arets, or the Judge of all the earth, to do (or make) justice, or mishpat. This is the first time in the Bible that God has been challenged by a righteous man. Mishpat might need more explanation. According to Maimonides, there are three types of laws in the Torah [Hilchot Me'ilah, 8: 8]:

  1. Mishpatim, or ethical laws. These are the laws that any ethical, rational person or society might come up with on their own. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal.
  2. Zakhorim, or laws of remembrance. Jews are commanded to connect with their ancestors and to remember their tribal history. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that God freed you from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
  3. Chukim, or laws with esoteric purpose. These are more mysterious, and do not make sense at face value. Do not wear linen and wool in the same garment. If you become ritually impure through exposure to a human corpse, the priests will, in preparation for this circumstance, have prepared a mixture of the ashes of a red heifer, with herbs and other ingredients, and a volunteer will smear the mixture on you, and a day later, you will be ritually pure, but the volunteer will become ritually impure by doing this.
Of the three, the choice to categorize certain laws as Chukim is the most controversial, and some rabbis do not accept that any rules are Chukim, but rather put them in the other two categories. The more rational Jews are slightly uncomfortable with the concept of Chukim, since rationalism and esotericism are sometimes at odds. The more mystical Jews (like the Hasidim) tend to deep-dive into the Chukim, often considering all laws to be Chukim.

Abraham pushes the issue:
And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake. And he said unto him, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake. And he said, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake. And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place [Genesis 18: 27-33].
Abraham challenges God to be merciful. The rabbis claim this is what differentiated Abraham from Noah. Noah accepted God's genocidal judgment without question, but Abraham demanded that God spare the cities of the plain for the sake of ten righteous people [Bereshit Rabbah,18: 9]. This is the courage of Abraham, and why he is the ethical ancestor of three of the world's major religions. He did not accept God's judgment without challenging God to be more merciful. He made the Prime Mover move back from his purpose.

For this, Rabbi Abbahu in the Talmud says, "God rules humankind, but the righteous rule God, for God makes a decree, and the righteous may through their prayer annul it." [Moed Katan, 16b].This is what it is to be a Jew: we will argue with God when we think God is being unjust.

Why does Abraham stop at ten? Maybe because ten make up a minyam, the quorum needed for group prayer? Maybe because there were ten humans on Noah's Ark, and therefore we know that ten survivors can rebuild civilization? Even Donovan gave Atlantis twelve survivors.

Chayei Sarah: Walking After the Lord

Friday, November 18, 2011
In the Talmud, Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Haninah was asked about Deuteronomy 13:5 (13:4 in the Christian Bible) and said, "Ye shall walk after the Lord your God". How are we supposed to walk after God when Deuteronomy 4:24 says, "For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire"? Rabbi Hama's answer [Sotah, 14a] is central to Judaism, essential to how to act and how to live considering that we are created in the image of God (בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, b'tzelem Elohim) [Genesis 1:27].

Rabbi Hama suggests that when we emulate the actions of God, we walk after God. For example, we should clothe the naked in emulation of God in the Garden of Eden: "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them" [Genesis 3:21]. We should visit the sick because God sent angels to visit Abraham when he was recovering from his circumcision [Genesis 18:1}. We should comfort mourners in emulation of Genesis 25:11: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac". We should bury the dead since God buries Moses after he dies: "And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day". [Deuteronomy 34:6, although the King James Bible uses an uncapitalized "he" without referring to whom the "he" refers to. In Jewish tradition, it is God who buries Moses].

All of which goes to show that "the image of God" is more about a wider ontological frame of reference than merely the corporeal. Kabbalah teaches that the higher worlds are realms where patterns, ideas, impressions and archetypes are the building blocks, the way that atoms and molecules are in the physical world. God is pandimensional, and therefore the image of God is as well. The worn-out metaphor (which to my horror, some people take literally) of God as a king on a throne does not work here. God is woven into the fabric of the way that consciousness interacts with the material world, but it is not productive to consider the physical existence of God as separate from nature. Maimonides regards the physical metaphors, such as the hand of God, the face of God, or the eye of God, as metaphors not meant to be taken literally. The metaphor is important, sometimes crucially important, but we must not confuse the map with the terrain. There is a lot of rabbinic writings about what the different anthropomorphic manifestations mean, but Maimonides warns us stringently not to consider them as having material existence.

Toldot: Usurpation of primogeniture

Tuesday, November 22, 2011
The Book of Genesis has two great themes that run throughout. The first is the usurpation of primogeniture, or the second-born son stealing the birthright of the first-born son (see Jon Levenson's book, Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son for more about this). The second is a man, fearing for his life in a strange land, pretending that his wife is his sister, and the consequences of that deception. In this week's Torah portion, we see both themes played out.

Cain is the first-born son of Adam, but God preferred Abel's sacrifice over Cain's. After Abel's murder, Seth is given Adam's blessings usually received by the first-born son. Ishmael is the first-born son of Abraham, but Isaac receives Abraham's inheritance and his blessings. The Talmudic rabbis interpreted Ishmael to be the progenitor of the Arab people, and the Quran agrees with this interpretation. By being born of Hagar, Sarah's servant, he loses the privileges of being first-born when Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and baby Ishmael from Abraham's household, sending them into the wilderness to their probable deaths. God saves Hagar, and promises her that He will create a mighty kingdom from the descendants of Ishmael. Meanwhile, Isaac, after a certain awkward moment on Mount Moriah, becomes the inheritor of Abraham's wealth, land and servants. When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael cooperate in burying their father. Ishmael transcends his rejection by the household; he honors his father, and his brother in this process. Abraham had imperiled the lives of both brothers, and yet they both work together to honor their father's last wishes.

In this week's Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca have children after twenty years of struggling with infertility (just as Abraham and Sarah struggled with infertility). Rebecca has twins, who fight each other in her womb. God tells Rebecca: "And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." [Genesis 25:23].

The first son was born hairy, with red hair all over his body. The parents name him Esau. The second son is born holding onto Esau's heel with his hand, and is named Jacob ("he will heel" in Hebrew). Esau becomes a mighty hunter and traveller, and Jacob is scholarly and never roams far from his home. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebecca favors Jacob.

An important note should be stated here that colors all that follows. Jacob is later renamed "Israel", and will be the progenitor of the Jewish people. Esau, in the Rabbinic tradition, becomes the progenitor of the people of Edom (from the same root as "red" in Hebrew), and is later considered to be the father of the Romans by the rabbis of the Talmud. To the rabbis of the Talmud, Rome is the source of everything that is wrong with the world. The antipathy towards the Romans and towards Roman oppression is consistent throughout the Talmud. For medieval rabbis, Rome was the Catholic Church, which was ungentle to European Jews. The Talmud was heavily censored in Catholic countries; rabbis could only complain about being oppressed if they used code words. Esau became a code word among Ashkenazi Jews for oppression by the Christians in Europe (including the Russian Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe, which often perpetrated blood libels and pogroms in the areas they controlled).  Therefore, the rabbinic treatment of Esau is harsh. It seems insanely harsh today taken out of historical context. What we see in the rabbinic commentary is not so much that they are villainizing Esau as the actual brother of Jacob, but rather as a catchphrase for all oppression the Jews have subsequently suffered in history.

Secondly, Jacob gets his fortune, his favor and his authority through guile, deceit and extortion. If Jacob is Israel, that makes the father of the Jews look really bad. His place in his family (and therefore in the world) comes through extorting his brother and deceiving his father. The rabbis often defend Jacob by attacking Esau.

So when Esau comes in from the field famished, and begs Jacob for a bite of the red stew (literally, "red stuff") that he is simmering, Jacob demands Esau's birthright as the price for food. The Torah depicts Esau as on the verge of death from hunger. Jacob insists that Esau swear an oath to grant Jacob his birthright before he is willing to feed Esau. Esau gives up his primogeniture, and only then, Jacob feeds him lentil stew and bread.

Previously in the Torah, Abraham twice ventured into foreign lands, and each time, he insisted that Sarah pretend to be his sister rather than his wife [Genesis 12: 10-20; Genesis 20: 1-7]. He explained each time that if the people knew that the beautiful Sarah was his wife, they would kill him in order to have Sarah for themselves. To modern sensibilities, this seems very cowardly, especially since in each instance, Abraham prospers because of the deceit. Both times, the king or Pharaoh tries to marry Sarah, and gets visited upon by plagues and disasters as Divine retribution for adultery. In each case, the monarch figures out that Sarah is Abraham's wife rather than sister, and angrily expels them both (but not before the two of them amass great riches).

Continuing this trend, Isaac and Rebecca experience famine, and go to Abimelech (his name is similar to the Hebrew for "my father-king"), king of the Philistines, for relief.  Again, Isaac imitates his father, and to protect himself from the Philistines' attraction to the beautiful Rebecca, pretends that she is his sister rather than his wife. This time, Abimelech catches the two of them in flagrente delicto. He is furious. He is outraged that through Isaac's deceit, his own people might have been subject to Divine retribution for adultery. This time, the deceit is detected before any plagues or disasters happen. Abimelech protects them from harm, and their household grows very prosperous. This prosperity provokes jealousy among their Philistine neighbors, and there is an ongoing conflict over the wells that were dug by Abraham a generation ago, and plugged up by the Philistines after Abraham's death. Isaac digs two new wells that his neighbors squabble with him over, and then a third that goes uncontested.

The symbolism of the wells is fascinating. There is a contemporary book called Our Fathers' Wells, by Peter Pitzele, about the symbolism of the wells you inherit from your father and of the ones you dig yourself. Our fathers struggled with work, with marriage, with manhood, with figuring out themselves and the world. We do too as the children of our fathers. We strive to gain from our fathers' strivings without succumbing to their mistakes. To some extent, our fathers embody the psychological damage inflicted upon them by their fathers, and to some extent, they have struggled valiantly to keep that damage from passing on to their sons. Sometimes, however, they fail, and we inherit their traumas. Each man discovers the wells that his father has abandoned, and must dig them out so that they can be of use to him today.

This is reflected in the Royal Arch legend, where the Companions dug deep below the earth to discover and reclaim the treasure hidden by their ancestors in the subterranean vault below. Every rite of Freemasonry has its own Royal Arch legend, because this metaphor is intrinsic to Freemasonry.

Isaac moved to Beersheba, and was visited by God in the night. God introduced Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac's father, and told him not to fear, that He would bless Isaac and provide him with many descendants for his father's sake. Isaac built an altar and dug a well on the spot.

Esau married two Hittite women whom Isaac and Rebecca dislike. The Torah notes that these two wives were a source of spiritual bitterness (מֹרַת רוּחַ) to them. Exogamy is something that Jews have struggled with ever since. Esau is contrasted with Jacob, who married within Rebecca's family. While Orthodox Jews forbid marrying non-Jews, those in the tradition of liberal Judaism are all over the map when it comes to interfaith relationships. Sometimes this results in serious illiberality over this issue. There are Jews who are liberal on almost every other issue who regard interfaith relationships as a form of genocide against the Jews. I'm not kidding. The level of hyperbole is remarkable on this issue. Most rabbinical programs, even in the Reform movement, make their students sign a pledge to never have sex with a non-Jew ever again. I'm not kidding about that, either.

The message this sends to children of one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent is cruel and painful. The message this sends to lonely Jews who find happiness with someone who isn't Jewish is also cruel and painful. Jews are in relationships with non-Jews in record numbers, and that most of these Jews want to continue to be Jews, and to be part of the Jewish community. Some synagogues have responded by diminishing to some degree their intolerance of interfaith relationships. Some strive to convert spouses of Jews to Judaism before or after marriage, and some go even further and accept Jews in interfaith relationships as welcome members of their community. The demographic trends are not on the side of further intolerance, and synagogues in liberal Judaism are starting to read the writing on the wall.

The Torah portion ends with another usurpation of primogeniture. The now blind Isaac is on his death-bed, and asks Esau to go out into the field and hunt game for him, to feed him a final meal, so that Isaac can give Esau his dying blessing. Rebecca, overhearing this, gets Jacob to fetch her two goat kids from the flock for her to prepare. She cooks a goat stew for Isaac, and has Jacob dress in Esau's clothing while Esau is in the field, and she covers Jacob's hands and neck with the goat skins so that he feels hairy to the touch, as Esau is hairy.

Jacob brings the meal to Isaac, pretending to be Esau. Isaac asks him, "who art thou, my son?" Jacob replies, "I am Esau thy first born; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me."

Doubting him, he asks Jacob to come closer. Touching his son, he determines that the voice is Jacob's but the hands are Esau's. Isaac asks again: "Art thou my very son Esau?" and Jacob replies, "I am."

With this assurance, Isaac eats the food and then blesses Jacob: "God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee." [Genesis 27: 28-9].

Following this, Esau returns from the field and brings his prepared game, cooked as his father liked it, to Isaac. Isaac demands to know who is addressing him, and when he finds out that it is Esau, he has a fit of violent trembling. He tells Esau that he has put all his spiritual focus into the blessing that he has just given, and has no power to make a second blessing. "And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father." [Genesis 27: 34].

But Isaac cannot. Sadly, he tells his weeping son, "Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.". [Genesis 27: 39-40].

I find tears welling up in my eyes as I write this. I feel tremendous pity for Esau. But the rabbinic commentaries do not.  The kind ones mention that God's prophecy from Genesis 25:23 once spoken is here made manifest. The others feel that Esau deserves his fate and worse. I'm very uncomfortable with the scorn heaped upon Esau in the commentaries, and there will be more next week.

 My rabbi likes to gently remind us that the Torah is more than a literary work, and more is going on than just the narrative. If Esau = Edom = Rome = The Inquisition, then it is justified that Esau is defeated here, and that, even if not, the prophecy stands.

The Patriarchs of Genesis are not saints. They lie, they cheat, they extort and they deceive. They have petty squabbles. The great astonishing fact of Genesis is not that holy men met and were blessed by God. It is that human men met and were blessed by God, with all their flaws intact. In a sense, the abuse visited upon Isaac from Abraham at his binding carries over into another generation, and God is present at the worst as well as at the best of times in their lives.

The Torah portion ends with Esau determined, after the mourning period for their father is over, to kill Jacob for stealing his blessing. Jacob flees for his life, and at the advice of both of his parents, joins his mother's family to live with his uncle Laban, and hopefully find a wife from that family. Jacob gives him a further blessing for the journey or is it the same blessing reiterated?: "And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham." [Genesis 28: 3-4].

Esau, seeing how upset his parents are with his Canaanite wives, marries one of Ishmael's daughters [Genesis 28: 8-9].

Next week: Jacob's ladder.

Vayeitzei: Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.

Saturday, November 26, 2011
Fearing for his life from his brother Esau, Jacob flees from his parents' home in Beer-sheba, hoping for sanctuary, and a possible future bride or two, from his maternal uncle Laban. Jacob has been fighting his brother since they were in their mother's womb; indeed, although Esau was born first, Jacob was born clinging to his brother's ankle. This archetype of feuding twin brothers exists in many legends in many cultures. Rome was founded by one of two feuding twin brothers. Gilgamesh and Enkidu were twins in the Sumerian epic, as were Ahriman and Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism. In this case, Jacob has extorted Esau's birthright and has stolen his blessing from their father through fraud. His mother warns him that Esau will kill him unless Jacob flees the country. He flees.

After the end of last week's Torah portion, the reader must be wondering how ethical and how spiritual this scoundrel could possibly be. It doesn't take long before the sun sets and Jacob is forced to find a place to sleep. Fetching a stone for a pillow, he lays down to sleep. Although his life to come, for decades, will be in a foreign land surrounded by people he cannot trust, for his first night away from home, he can sleep in peace, even if in the wilderness.

In his sleep, he has a vision in his dreams. In the Jewish tradition, very few prophets encounter Divine manifestations while awake. Most encounter Divine manifestations or have visions in their dreams. The rabbis of the Talmud therefore regard Divine visions in dreams as being less definitive than Divine visions had while awake. Nonetheless, Jacob's vision has entered our collective psyche, and has had great influence on Kabbalah, as well as Freemasonry.

In the vision in the dream, a ladder is standing on the ground, and the top of the ladder reaches up to heaven. As he watches, God's angels (malachey Elohim) are ascending and descending the ladder. Suddenly he notices that God (YHVH) is standing over him. God introduces Himself as the God of his father and grandfather, and tells him that He will give Jacob's descendants the land he is lying upon, and they will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. They will spread forth in the four cardinal directions, and all the tribes of the earth (kol-mishpechot ha'adamah) will be blessed through Jacob and his descendants. God tells Jacob that he is under His protection through his journeys and until he returns to his homeland.

This image of a ladder to heaven cannot fail to catch hold in the psyche. Many traditions have been fascinated with this metaphor. In the Kabbalah, there is a diagram of the Tree of Life, with ten steps going from the material world (in Malkut, or the Kingdom) to the highest reality distinguished from non-reality (Keter, or the Crown). In a sense, the ascent up or descent down the Tree is analogous to the angels ascending and descending the ladder, showing us how to do it.

Interesting then that Freemasonry has two differing traditions about Jacob's ladder, one of which has three rungs and one of which has seven rungs (7 + 3 = 10).

In the York Rite Entered Apprentice degree, the candidate is told that Heaven is accessible by Jacob's ladder, and that it has three rungs, called Faith, Hope and Charity, the three Theological Virtues from 1 Corinthians 13. Much of the description of these virtues is taken from Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians. I regard this chapter as having some of the most beautiful language of the New Testament. It is important to note that Charity refers to caritas, rather than the modern conception of charity. The parallel Hebrew concept is chesed (חסד). The parallel Greek concept is agápē (ἀγάπη). It can be translated as lovingkindness. The Kabbalists regard chesed as the highest intellectual consciousness, acting without any cause except love.

In Preston's original lectures, and also in the Emulation ritual, the ladder rests on the Volume of Sacred Law sitting on the altar, rather than on the ground. Thus the Mason has access to the ladder only through the study of scripture, or through attendance in a tyled lodge with the Volume of Sacred Law open.

In the 30th degree (Knight Kadosh) of the Scottish Rite, in Albert Pike's version of the degree, the candidate is shown a ladder with seven rungs, one for each of the three Theological Virtues, and one for each of the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. He gives them Hebrew names:

  1. צדקה, (tsedakah) a word that means charity, but also truth, justice and righteousness.
  2. שוה לבנה, (shavah lavanah) literally, "merit the white", which Pike translates as "Pure or perfect Equity".
  3. מתוק, (matok) pleasantness or amiability. The root of this word means "sweet".
  4. אמונה, (emunah) faith, or as Pike translates, "Good Faith".
  5. עמל שגיא, (amal saggi) a lofty effort, or as Pike translates, "Much Labour or Exertion".
  6. סבל, (sabbal) a word meaning a bearer of burdens, or as Pike translates, "Patience or Endurance".
  7. Three words: גמול, and בינה, and תבונה. (gemul, binah, tevunah) The first is deed or action, which Pike translates as "Elaboration". The second is wisdom or insight, which Pike translates as "Prudence". The third is understanding, which Pike translates as "Discrimination" [These translations are from my friend Thomas D. Worrell's excellent article "A Spiritual Vision of the Liberal Arts and Sciences" in Ahiman: A Review of Masonic Culture and Tradition, vol. 1].
Pike also associates these seven rungs with the Seven Liberal Arts, in descending order.
  1. Astronomy
  2. Music
  3. Geometry
  4. Arithmetic
  5. Logic
  6. Rhetoric
  7. Grammar.
Since the three Theological Virtues are in both the three-rung and the seven-rung versions, I don't think the Masonic rungs added together correlate with the Tree of Life in any simple manner.

When Jacob wakes from his dream, he exclaims, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." This to me is the most meaningful line in the whole Torah portion. God is everywhere. We say that so glibly but we rarely sense the full extent of this. Jacob is suddenly aware of the full extent of this. Genesis 28: 17 tells us that Jacob was afraid, but the Hebrew uses the word יִרְאָה, (yirah) which means both fear and awe. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes this word not as the fear one feels when his life is threatened, but rather the fear that comes when you think you are alone, and you suddenly realize that someone else is in the room with you. This is the fear in Psalm 111: 10: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." In the Hebrew, it is Yirat YHVH. Rather than being afraid that God is going to harm you, it is the sudden awareness that the Ineffable One is in your presence, and you in His. This is what Jacob feels when he wakes from his dream. He says, "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Genesis 28: 17].

The gate of heaven (sha'ar hashamayim) appears a lot in Kabbalistic literature. There are great books called "Sha'arei Or" (the gates of light), and "Shaarei Tzedek" (the gates of righteousness), and "Sha'arei Emunah" (the gates of faith). Indeed, by the word "gate", the Kabbalist refers to a sudden transition to another state of consciousness or an alternate reality. This concept of gates reminds me of the famous quote of William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes, though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region, though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
Here is a gospel choir singing Psalm 118: 19: "Pitchu li sha'arei tsedek, avo vom odeh Yah". "Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord".

Vayishlach: Wrestling with an angel

Friday, December 9, 2011
In this week's Torah portion, Jacob returns to his family in Canaan after twenty years of servitude to his uncle Laban. His brother, Esau, from whom he hed fled for his life after cheating him out of his father's dying blessing, now dominates the region of his family, and Jacob is terrified that Esau still wants to kill him. Jacob has been blessed by God with wealth and a large family, and they are in a large caravan when Jacob sends forth messengers to Esau to announce his return and to offer gifts of livestock and slave girls. Esau informs the messengers that Esau will send 400 men to greet Jacob. Fearing that the 400 men will slay him and his family, he splits the caravan into two groups, reasoning that if one is massacred, the other might survive. I have mentioned previously that the rabbis of the Talmud regarded Esau as the embodiment of evil, and the father of all the enemies of the Jews. The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the perfidy of Esau, and illustrate the source of Jacob's terror.

At the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob puts the two camps on the farther bank, and then crosses again alone to wait out the night. He prays to God, asking Him to remember His promise to Jacob during the dream of the Ladder.

Just before dawn, an angel appears in the guise of a man and wrestles Jacob. The angel initiates contact, engaging Jacob in grappling to test his resolve. Jacob wrestles the angel through the dawn, and ultimately the tables are turned and the angel struggles to flee from Jacob's grip, but Jacob will not let him go until the angel gives him a blessing. The angel dislocates Jacob's hip with a touch, but Jacob will not let go of the angel. The angel changes Jacob's name to Israel (Yisrael means one who wrestles with God), and prophesied that Jacob would become mighty before God and man. Jacob asks the angel his name, but that knowledge is forbidden him (cf. Judges 13: 18). Jacob named the place Peniel, or the Face of God, declaring that he had seen the Face of God and had withstood it [Genesis 32:31]. Jacob walked with a limp, with great difficulty, from that day forward.

Israel is the name of the whole Jewish people, of whom Jacob is the father. We are the people who wrestle with God. We do not come into faith naïvely. We question everything. We criticize, analyze, doubt, argue, question and ponder every detail of the revealed texts, and our own traditions. A Jew can doubt the existence of God and still be a Jew. A Jew has grabbed an angel and has wrestled with it. Sometimes the angel grabs us, and sometimes we cling to the angel long after it wishes to depart. We do not let go until we receive a blessing, however begrudgingly given. This defines us as a people. We are a nation of God-wrestlers.

Esau, the next morning, runs to meet him and kisses him, and they both hold each other, weeping. The anti-Esau crowd has a hard time with this. There is one midrash that Esau attempted to bite Jacob, and that Jacob's neck turned to marble, that Esau's teeth broke on the marble, and the bite appeared as a kiss to someone observing from far away. I find such interpretation repellent. Esau kissed Jacob. Esau forgave Jacob. This is one of the most precious moments of redemption in the Torah, and should not be trivialized. Esau refused Jacob's gifts, saying that he was sufficiently wealthy without them.

Jacob tells Esau that seeing him is like seeing the Face of the Divine, and Jacob should know. Esau offers to escort Jacob and his family, but Jacob declines. Again, the interpretation is that Esau plans to waylay Jacob and steal his riches, which he could have done by the banks of the Jabbok, but did not. Jacob travels to Shechem and sets up roots there, buying the land he is to live upon.

Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped by the prince of Shechem, himself named Shechem. The Torah does not always have contemporary meanings to terms, but in this case, Shechem has sex with Dinah by force, even though the Torah tells us that he afterwards falls in love with her. Shechem's father asks Jacob if the prince can marry Dinah. In ancient patriarchal societies, a rapist could escape punishment by marrying his victim and paying her father a large bride-price. This seems pretty disgusting from a modern perspective, but in ancient times rape was seen as a crime of property as much as a crime of violating someone's person. A daughter who was not a virgin could not normally marry.

Shechem begs Jacob for permission to marry Dinah. The sons of Jacob agree on the condition that every man in the city of Shechem get circumcised. Shechem agrees on behalf of his people, persuading his people that the wealth of Jacob could add to the wealth of the city. Every man in the city agrees to undergo circumcision.

While they are recovering from this painful procedure, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, enter the city and murder every man in the city of Shechem, including Shechem and his father, and took Dinah home with them, along with all the plunder of the city, its wealth, its livestock, and its women as slaves. Jacob is furious. He excoriates them for disgracing him and his family, and for inviting scorn and retaliation from the other peoples of Canaan. Simeon and Levi reply to their father: "should he deal with our sister as an harlot?".

Jacob and his family flee to Beth-El. Eventually, Rachel dies, and Isaac dies of old age. Esau and Jacob bury their father together. The Torah portion ends with a description of Esau's household and wealth, and the agreement that Esau will move to Edom to separate his household from Jacob's. It is mentioned that among Esau's Edomite descendants is Amalek, the great enemy of the Jewish people.

I think the anti-Esau crowd uses this mention to justify why they despise Esau so much, but nobody can control whether or not they have evil descendants. It does set the stage for much of the drama to come, when the Israelites flee Egypt and engage in war with Amalek.

Vayeishev: Joseph and the meaning of dreams

Friday, December 16, 2011
One fourth of the Book of Genesis is dedicated to the story of Joseph. Fascinating, since he was not considered one of the Patriarchs. Indeed, there is no territory of Joseph as there are for each of his brothers.  The tribe of Levi form the Levites who, because of their priestly duties, were not given a portion of the Land of Israel, and thus do not form a territorial tribe. The final two half-tribes, that of Ephraim and Manasseh, are the sons of Joseph, who got their own territories, rather than Joseph himself.

So why does the Book of Genesis devote so much text to Joseph? Partially to explain how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, but there is more going on in the story of Joseph than a mere relocation story. Joseph's story is driven by dreams, both his and the dreams of others. God gave him the gift of prophecy through dream interpretation, and in the next four Torah portions, he uses this gift, at first injudiciously, and later more wisely.

Jacob regarded Joseph as a favorite, and this favoritism bred jealousy in his brothers. Jacob gave him an extravagant brocaded coat (כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים in Hebrew). This coat became a focus for his brothers' jealousies. At the age of seventeen, Joseph received prophetic dreams that he would rule over his brothers and even his father. A wiser youth would have kept these dreams to himself, especially if he were conscious of his brothers' attitudes towards him, but Joseph foolishly told his brothers his dreams in which he dominated them. In one dream, he appeared as a sheaf of wheat Masons take note standing straight up, whereas his brothers appeared as sheaves of wheat pointing in a circle around him bowing down to him. In a second dream, his brothers appeared as eleven stars, his father the sun and his deceased mother the moon, all bowing down to Joseph. He told this dream to his father and brothers, and it greatly upset them, although his father suspended judgment at the time.

These dreams exacerbated his brothers' ill feelings towards him, and they conspired to murder him. One day, his older brothers were tending sheep when Jacob asked Joseph to check on them. The Talmud tells us that Simeon and Levi, the perpetrators of the massacre at Shechem, were the chief conspirators, intending to murder Joseph and cast his corpse into a pit. Reuben, on the other hand, intervened on Joseph's behalf, insisting that his brothers spare Joseph's life. Reuben suggests that they cast Joseph alive into a well that was dug, but turned out to be dry. To be honest, the Hebrew just says "hole", but in choosing to interpret the hole as a well, I continue the metaphor of Our Fathers' Wells into this story, which is thematically appropriate.

Wells appear throughout the Book of Genesis as a symbol of mercy in the midst of harshness, or of inheritance in the case of Isaac reclaiming his father's wells. Water in the desert is life in the midst of death, and is a symbol of chesed, or lovingkindness. Thus, a dry well is a symbol of failed chesed, or an attempt at mercy that does not contain true caritas.

Reuben planned to rescue Joseph and return him to their father. As we shall see, this plan does not come into fruition. The brothers strip him of his precious coat, and put him in the dry well. Josephus says that Reuben gently lowered Joseph into the pit, as to save him from injury [Antiquities, 2:2:1 - 2:5:3], but Bereshit Rabbah 84: 16 says that Simeon threw Joseph into the pit. Soon afterwards, an Arab caravan approached, bringing spices and incenses for trade. Judah decides that, rather than murder Joseph, he can sell Joseph as a slave to the caravan. He receives twenty pieces of silver for the sale of their brother. Reuben returns to the pit to rescue Joseph and finds him gone, and tears his clothing in his grief. He says to his brothers: "The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?" [Genesis 37: 30].

As a ruse, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph's coat in the blood. They bring the coat to their father, and tell him: "This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no." [Genesis 37: 32]. Heartbroken, Jacob assumes that Joseph has been killed by wild beasts, and succumbs to a long period of mourning, tearing his clothing and wearing sackcloth. His grief is pitiful: "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him." [Genesis 37: 35].

Joseph, meanwhile is taken by the caravan to Egypt, and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, and a Captain of the Guard.

At this point in the Torah, there is a rather bizarre digression about the duties of levirate marriage, or yibbum. There is a whole tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the complex rules surrounding this obligation, which diverges somewhat from the Torah's rules about the subject. It is important to remember that these peoples were extremely patriarchal, and their responsibilities to each other were very much dictated by the requirements of patriarchy, in ways that seem very odd to us today. When a woman was widowed, it was the responsibility of her brother-in-law to marry her, thus ensuring her protection.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah will dictate the rules of yibbum in the following way: "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.". [Deuteronomy 25: 5-6].

While this seems disturbing to a modern sensibility, in the culture of the ancients, the posthumous status of the dead husband had to be preserved. Defending her from the isolation of widowhood, the brother of her dead husband could marry her, impregnate her, and these children would be legally  considered the children of her dead husband. This would restore not only her status, but the posthumous status of her dead husband. Men lived in fear of not producing progeny, and this method could ensure that a man could produce progeny after his death.

A brother could refuse to marry his brother's widow. This refusal is called chalitzah in Jewish law; the Talmud actually prefers chalitzah to yibbum [Bekhorot, 13a]. In a public ceremony, the widow removes the shoe of her brother-in-law, and then spits in his face, and announces to the crowd that this man refuses to take her as a wife, and he confirms this. In the current Orthodox version of chalitzah, the widow spits on the ground, not in her brother-in-law's face, and the witnesses say "May it be the will [of God] that Jewish women be no more subjected to halizah or to yibbum." [Shulkhan Arukh, Eben ha-Ezer, 156-7].

The rules seem to get somewhat confused in the Book of Ruth, since the redeeming kinsman removes his shoe and hands it to Boaz [Ruth, 4: 7-10], rather than Ruth handing her shoe to Boaz. The book explains: "Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel." Thus, in Masonic ritual, the removal of the shoe is referred to as "a testimony in Israel".

Judah, the progenitor of the Jewish people, does some pretty disreputable things in this section, and is depicted in a very unflattering manner. In a leading authorship theory of the Torah, it is believed that two factions of Torah author are in conflict with each other: the clerical faction and the political faction. In this theory, at the time ascribed to when the Priestly author wrote, the Levites controlled all religious practice and the tribe of Judah controlled the Kingdom of Judah, which was in power. Thus, the Priestly author was skeptical of political power, diminishing Judah, and the Political author was skeptical of clericalism, diminishing Levi.

Judah leaves his brothers and sets off on his own. He marries and has three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, and because he is wicked, is struck down by God. Judah insists that his son Onan marry Tamar. Onan does not object to marrying Tamar, but he does object to having her children and having them be regarded as Er's children. He marries her, but practices coitus interruptus when having sex with her, ejaculating on the ground instead of inside Tamar. This dereliction of duty offends God, who strikes Onan dead.

In some Christian societies, masturbation is called onanism after this Biblical passage, and because levirate marriage is not well-understood anymore, it has been misinterpreted that God kills Onan either for using a birth control method, or for masturbating, which is fairly odd considering the passage. Even some Orthodox Jews regard masturbation as a terrible sin, and even go so far as to regard nocturnal emissions as sinful. I think that, considering what the Torah says, these extremist interpretations are wildly off the mark. If levirate marriage is understood, the passage is clear and direct. Onan was killed for refusing to give Tamar children who would be considered Er's children.

As Shelah was still a child, Judah told Tamar to live with her father until Shelah grew to adulthood. Judah worried that Shelah would die like his brothers, and was basically blowing Tamar off. Judah's wife died, and Judah did not marry Tamar to Shelah as he had promised. Tamar disguised herself as a  veiled prostitute (זוֹנָה in Hebrew). She is later described as being dressed like a hierodule, or sacred prostitute (קְּדֵשָׁה in Hebrew). This is a strange word, as it is a feminine form of the word for sacred. Certain pagan women in ancient Canaan would have sex with worshippers in fertility rites as part of worship. In this tradition, they covered their faces (and thus were anonymous, encouraging any woman who wanted this form of pagan religious devotion to do this without loss of reputation).

Judah offers her a goat for solicitation, and gives her his seal of authority, his cloak and his staff (the symbols of his authority) as a deposit until he can provide her with the goat, and has sex with her, impregnating her. If she were a zonah, or regular prostitute, Judah only would be guilty of fornication, but if she were a kedeishah, or sacred prostitute of the Canaanite cult, he would be guilty of blasphemy against God as well.

Judah tries to find the prostitute to provide her the goat, and get his deposit back, but nobody is aware of her existence. He is forced to give up and abandon the symbols of his authority. A few months later, Tamar is visibly pregnant, and Judah (not knowing that he is the father) is indignant, and insists that she be burned. The rabbinic commentary is divided as to whether burned meant burned to death, or branded. Upon her arrest, she offered the seal, the cloak and the staff to the men who arrested her, claiming that the owner of these items is the father of her child. Judah is exposed as a fornicator, a promise-breaker and a hypocrite.

Tamar gives birth to twins. One boy, Zerach thrust his arm out of her womb, and the midwife tied a crimson string around his wrist, claiming the boy as the firstborn. But the infant pulled his arm back in, and his brother, Peretz left the womb before him. Peretz was an ancestor of Boaz who was an ancestor of King David.

Joseph thrives as the servant of Potiphar in Egypt. The Torah suggests that God caused Joseph to have success in all his undertakings, and Potiphar realizes that Joseph is blessed by God, and gave him responsibility for the entire household, making him head butler of Potiphar's estate. God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph, making him extremely successful and prosperous. Joseph grew to manhood, and became extremely attractive, and Potiphar's wife became infatuated with Joseph. She demanded that Joseph sleep with her, but he refused, insisting that he had earned the trust of his master. She finally jumped him, grabbing his cloak as Joseph fled without it. Incensed, she told the household that Joseph had tried to rape her, and she gave his cloak as evidence of his assault. Potiphar, trusting his wife, had Joseph thrown in prison.

Joseph befriended the warden of the prison, and pretty soon, the warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. God blessed Joseph, and he ended up running the prison. Later, Pharaoh's wine steward and baker were imprisoned. Rashi suggests that there was a fly in the wine and a pebble in the bread. Targum Yonatan suggests that they had conspired to poison Pharaoh, and Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, mentions a midrash that explains that they had attempted to seduce Pharaoh's daughter.

One night, both men had prophetic dreams they could not interpret. The wine steward dreamed of a vine with three branches. As he watched, buds formed, blossoms bloomed, and the branches filled with grapes.  Pharaoh's cup appeared in his hand and he took the grapes and squeezed them into the cup and handed it to Pharaoh. Joseph interpreted the three branches as three days. In three days, the wine steward would be pardoned and restored to his previous position. Joseph told the wine steward that when this happened, to remember Joseph in prison and to tell Pharaoh that Joseph is innocent and should be freed.

The baker dreamed that three baskets of white bread were on his head. In the top basket were Pharaoh's favorite breads, but birds were eating it out of the basket. Joseph interpreted the three baskets as three days, and said that in three days, Pharaoh would hang the baker, and that the birds would pick at his carcass on the gallows. Nice, I know.

Three days later was Pharaoh's birthday, and he released the wine steward and the baker from prison. He restored the wine steward to his former position, but he executed the baker. The wine steward, in his excitement about being freed, forgot all about Joseph, leaving him to languish in prison.

Mikeitz: Hiding his tears

Friday, December 23, 2011
In this week's Torah portion, Joseph spends two more years in prison before he is released. As you will recall from last week, the Pharaoh's wine steward forgot about him when he was released, after Joseph interpreted his dream. Two years later, Pharaoh himself has prophetic dreams. He dreams that he sees seven handsome cows grazing by the Nile, set upon by seven lean and scraggly cows, which devour the healthy cows. Then he dreams of seven lush and healthy ears of corn, which are devoured by seven weather-beaten, blighted ears of corn. None of Pharaoh's advisors can satisfactorily interpret the dream, and only then, the wine steward remembers about Joseph, and asks that he can be released to interpret Pharaoh's dreams.

Joseph is cleaned up and brought before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh relates his dreams to Joseph. Joseph interprets them both the same way: there will be seven years of abundance in Egypt, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharaoh to ration grain during the abundant years, to prepare for the upcoming famine. He suggests that Pharaoh hire a supervisor to administrate this process, and Pharaoh chooses Joseph as that supervisor. Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh, and is given power and authority.

When the famine arrives, it spreads throughout the region, and in Canaan, Jacob and his other sons are hard hit by it. Jacob sends his sons, laden with money and expensive goods, to Egypt to buy grain. He leaves his youngest son, Benjamin, at home with him, because he adores Benjamin too much to risk losing him. The sons arrive in Egypt and are brought before Joseph. Joseph recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery and faked his death. They tell their story to Joseph, through an interpreter, and he asks them about their family, and where they come from. He accuses them of being spies, since they speak Hebrew and yet claim to be from Canaan. At this accusation, the brothers begin to argue with each other. Reuben tells his brothers that he had warned them not to do anything to Joseph. When Joseph hears this (the brothers do not realize that Joseph understands Hebrew), he runs away and cries in another room. He regains his composure and returns.

Joseph imprisons them for three days, and then releases them (with the exception of Simeon), demanding that they prove their story by returning home to bring their brother Benjamin back with them. The brothers know that Jacob is deeply reluctant to part with Benjamin. Joseph packs their bags with grain, and hides all the money they paid for the grain in the grain bags.

On the return journey, the brothers find the money in the grain bags, and they are horrified, thinking that they will be accused of stealing. They return home to their father with the grain, and tell them all of what happened, and that Joseph expects them to return with Benjamin in order to release Simeon from prison. Jacob is very reluctant to do this, but eventually, their grain runs out, and they are forced to return to Egypt. Reuben promises Jacob that if Benjamin is killed on their journey, Jacob can kill two of his four sons. Jacob sends them back with double the money, and they return to Egypt.

Upon their return with Benjamin, they are again brought before Joseph, who offers them a lavish feast. Joseph receives the returned money along with the new money, and asks them about their father. Then he looks over Benjamin and prays before the brothers that God would be gracious to Benjamin. Overcome with emotion, he again leaves the banquet hall and weeps in another room before regaining his composure and returning to the feast. Benjamin has been given five portions of food.

Joseph orders that their bags be laden with grain for their return, and he has all the money put in their grain sacks, and in Benjamin's sack, he places his precious silver goblet. Joseph has his guards chase after the brothers' caravan and overtake it, and they accuse the brothers of stealing the goblet. The brothers swear their innocence, and suggest that if they find a stolen goblet, that brother be executed and the others sold into slavery. The guards instead suggest that if they find the goblet, the one who has the goblet would be enslaved, and the other brothers would go free. The guards find the goblet in Benjamin's sack. They all return to the city.

Joseph judges them for stealing the goblet, and the brothers fall on their knees in supplication. At this moment, the dreams that Joseph had twenty-two years earlier, which so enraged their brothers in the first place, have come true. Joseph reiterates that they can all go free except Benjamin, who is to be enslaved to Joseph. Here the portion ends.

I find great emotional resonance in the two times that Joseph hides and weeps. He has been terribly wronged by his brothers, and yet, they have inadvertently set him upon the path that has lead to Joseph becoming a very fortunate and powerful man. Despite all they have done to him, Joseph loves his brothers and misses his father. Next week, we will see Jacob come down to Egypt himself.

Vayigash: What the tears reveal

Friday, December 30, 2011
In last week's Torah portion, we saw Joseph hiding his tears from his brothers and his Egyptian colleagues. In this week's Torah portion, the tears flow too deeply to hide. As you will recall, the last portion ends with Joseph's goblet being found in Benjamin's pack. None of the brothers are aware that Joseph ordered his servants to put it there. Upon being accused of theft, but before the "theft" was revealed, the brothers vow that if any of them stole from Joseph, the thief should be executed, and the other brothers sold into slavery. Joseph's steward is more lenient, deciding that the thief should be enslaved, and the others should go free. Upon revealing the stolen goblet, the steward insists that Benjamin be Joseph's slave. As you will recall, Jacob was reluctant to let Benjamin travel down to Egypt until Judah promised to offer his life for Benjamin's life should anything happen to Benjamin in Egypt. And then this week's Torah portion begins.

The portion begins with Judah coming to Benjamin's defense before Joseph. Judah does not recognize Joseph, and thinks of him as second only to Pharaoh. Therefore, to contest his decision is to put his life in jeopardy, but he does not hesitate to step up. Judah relates his promise to their father, and mentions that his father, through Rachel, had only two sons. Joseph, Jacob assumes, was torn by wild beasts, and Benjamin is Jacob's new favorite. Judah assures Joseph that if the brothers return without Benjamin, their father will die of anguish. He tells Joseph that he has pledged his life for Benjamin's, and begs Joseph to take him instead, in order to spare their father's life.

This proves too much for Joseph. This whole ruse and subterfuge has been designed to prove to Joseph whether or not their brothers have made moral restitution since abducting him and selling him into slavery. With Judah's testimony, he is convinced that his brothers have done so, and he cannot help but be overcome with emotion at this discovery. He fears that he is about to break down weeping, and sends his Egyptian servants away.

His sobs are so loud that everyone in his palace can hear them, but alone in the room with his brothers, he reveals himself to them. He insists that they feel no guilt at having wronged him, but assures them that God sent him before them to Egypt, to save all of their lives before the upcoming famine. He asks them to return for their father, and gives them choice land to settle in Goshen, in Egypt, to wait out the famine in some of the only viable grazing lands in the region.

With that, he embraces Benjamin, and the two of them sob on each other's shoulders. Then he kisses each of his brothers and weeps with them. The commotion is so loud that Pharaoh is alerted, and he invites the brothers to return to Canaan for their wives and children, and to bring their father with them, to settle in the best lands in Egypt. Joseph helps them pack for the journey, and tells them: "do not have anger or agitation along the way." [Genesis 45: 24].

The rabbis are fascinated with this advice. The history of the Jewish people is full of internecine conflicts, right up to the present day. The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. Jews who should have loved each other hated each other over issues that from a distance look like minutiae. Today in Israel, in Beit Shemesh, an eight-year-old Modern Orthodox girl was spat upon and called a whore by extremist ultra-Orthodox adult men for wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a long skirt that still was not considered modest enough by her bullies. Last night, there was rioting in Beit Shemesh as people protesting the girl's treatment, and those who harassed her fought in the public square. Police who showed up to quell the violence were met with rocks and flaming trash cans. The extremists within the ultra-Orthodox community there are calling for an exclusion of women in the public sphere, from public shops and public transport. In their journey to the land of Israel, these extremists have quarreled along the way.

Too often Jews have forgotten that we are all brothers, and should love each other, and that we should not quarrel along the way to Israelboth the land of Israel, and the metaphorical Israel. Masons too sometimes gently need to be reminded not to quarrel along the way. We are all brothers.

Vayechi: Bring my remains back to Israel

Monday, January 2, 2012
In this week's Torah portion, the last in the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph ends, and the story of Moses is set up. In last week's Torah portion, Jacob and his descendants settle in Goshen, in Egypt, to escape the famine that is ravaging the land of Canaan. His son, Joseph, has become the vizier to the Pharaoh, and has invited them to live with him in plenty. Jacob has told his sons upon hearing the news that Joseph is alive that he wanted to see him one last time before he died. Now that they are reconciled, Jacob is ready to give up the ghost.

Upon his deathbed, Jacob asks Joseph to ensure that his remains will be buried in the cave where Abraham and Isaac are buried. Joseph agrees, but Jacob insists that he swear an oath. Joseph brings his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to be blessed by their grandfather. Jacob adopts them, which is very strange. He tells Joseph that Ephraim and Manasseh are to be considered his sons, rather than Joseph's, and tells him that any further children he has are to be Joseph's, and are to inherit through their older brothers. Joseph places his sons before Jacob in order of their birth, with Manasseh (the older) on Jacob's right, and with Ephraim (the younger) on Jacob's left. But Jacob crosses his hands, giving the blessing of the oldest child to Ephraim. Joseph moves to uncross Jacob's hands, but Jacob insists that the blessings be reversed. He prophesies that Ephraim will become a great nation. This is especially odd because Judges 12: 6 tells us that the rest of Israel fought a war against the Ephraimites, and slew 42,000 of them in a single battle.

In any case, Jacob blesses Joseph as well, and tells him that his bones will end up in his ancestral land. Indeed, when Jacob died, the Egyptians embalmed his corpse, and escorted it to the Cave of the Patriarchs at Machpelah where it was buried. Interestingly, Joseph died before his other brothers, and before he died, he asked them to promise to bury him there, too.

On his deathbed, Joseph prophesies to his brothers that at some time in the future, God will lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and back to the land promised to their ancestors, and at that time, they must bring Joseph's remains with them. When he dies, the Egyptians embalm him and place him in a sarcophagus.

My rabbi informed me of a midrash about Serah, the daughter of Asher. Serah is the only granddaughter mentioned among the grandchildren of Jacob in the previous Torah portion [Genesis 46: 17]. Because of the patriarchal nature of society in the time of the Torah, women are rarely mentioned in the Torah, unless they have done something extraordinary. For example, the daughters of  Zelophehad, namely Malhah, Noa, Hogia, Milcah and Tirzah, ask Moses a question about Torah that he cannot answer, forcing him to consult with God in their behalf, creating the first inheritance for women in the Bible. Serah bat Asher is also mentioned in Numbers 26: 46 during the census of those Israelites who will enter the land of Israel after the forty years of wandering, where she would have been over 440 years old. The Talmud tells us that she lived the entire time, and was the one who reminded Moses not to leave Egypt without Joseph's remains:
But whence did Moses know the place where Joseph was buried? — It is related that Serah, daughter of Asher, was a survivor of that generation. Moses went to her and asked: 'Dost thou know where Joseph was buried?' She answered him, 'The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they fixed in the river Nile so that its waters should be blessed'. [Babylonian Talmud: Sotah 13a].
The midrash suggests that Serah bat Asher lived before the Israelites went down to Egypt, and lived long enough to leave Egypt with them, and survived the journey and returned to Israel with the tribe of Asher. Taken as a legend, her life provides a marvelous continuity for the children of Israel.

There are lots of stories about Serah bat Asher. One legend suggests that it was she who informed Jacob that Joseph was alive. Fearing upsetting the old man, she composed a tune and played it on the lyre, and inserted the news in the lyrics of her song. Jacob was so moved that he blessed her, and said to her "may you never die." As a result, she lived on the earth for a long time, and like Enoch and Elijah, entered the afterlife while still bodily alive. She was the one who first listened to Moses when he returned to Egypt after witnessing the Burning Bush. A final legend suggests that she departed from the world when the tribe of Asher was exiled from Israel by Shalmaneser V of Assyria during the conquest of Samaria.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק


Shemot: a Voice from the Burning Bush

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Book of Exodus begins with a telling of the names (shemot in Hebrew) of Joseph's brothers who followed him into Egypt. It recounts the dynastic changes in Egypt that led to the new dynasty having a very different relationship with the Hebrews than the dynasty in Joseph's day. The Egyptians were enemies with the Hyskos, a Semitic tribe in the region, and the new dynasty regarded the Hebrews, as Semites, as a fifth column in their fight with the Hyskos. The Hebrews in four centuries had grown very prosperous and prolific, and they became a distrusted minority group in Egypt.

Just as Joseph had enslaved the Egyptian peasants during the famine, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, and made their conditions very bitter. In order to control their population, the Pharaoh ordered that the midwives put all Hebrew male babies to death. This they were very unwilling to do. As the Hebrew population increased, Pharaoh then ordered all Hebrew male babies thrown into the Nile and drowned.

When Amram ben Kehoth and his wife Jochebed had their third child, they were very afraid that he would be killed by the Egyptians. They hid him in an ark made of papyrus and pitch, and placed it in the rushes on the banks of the Nile river, and hoped for the best. Pharaoh's daughter was bathing in that part of the Nile, and she discovered the ark, and took pity on the baby.

She adopted the baby as her own son (Midrash says that she was infertile), and chose Jochebed as his wet-nurse. Midrash also informs us that his older sister, Miriam, was his nanny as a child. He grew up to be a mighty prince of Egypt. But he still had sympathy for his people. When he saw an Egyptian overseer beat a Hebrew man to death, Moses murdered the man and hid his corpse. The next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting, and when he admonished them, one of the men responded: "intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian?" [Exodus 2: 14].

Pharaoh ordered Moses to be executed for murder, and Moses fled to Midian to evade his sentence. Midrash suggests that Moses spent forty years in Egypt, forty years in Midian, and forty years in the Wilderness leading the Hebrews back to Israel.

In Midian, Moses could re-invent himself. He came upon a watering-hole. The seven daughters of Jethro, a prominent priest of Midian were being harassed by some shepherds. Moses came to their aid. In thanks, Jethro invited Moses into his family and gave him his daughter Zipporah as his wife. Yet another meeting at a watering hole that led to marriage. Moses waited out his death sentence, which would end when Pharaoh died, and took on the life of a shepherd in Midian.

Moses was tending his flocks near Mount Horeb. There is a midrash that a baby lamb was exhausted and collapsed, and Moses cradled the lamb around his neck, with its legs draped around his shoulders. God saw this, and realized that he was sufficiently compassionate to become the leader of the Israelites and God's greatest prophet.

Moses spied a thorn bush on fire. It was burning, but the thorn bush was not being consumed by the flames. Fascinated, he stopped to investigate.

God spoke to Moses from the burning thorn bush, telling him not to advance any closer, and to remove his shoes, as the place was holy ground. Masons are familiar with this, for reasons that are mentioned in the Entered Apprentice degree. This is the moment of Moses' initiation. God revealed Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God told Moses that He heard the cries of suffering of the Hebrews in bondage in Egypt under a new Pharaoh, and that He had appointed Moses to be the agent of His deliverance, to help God convey the Hebrews to a land flowing with milk and honey (erets zavat chalav). Honey here means date honey, not bee honey.

God tells Moses to appear before the new Pharaoh and plead for Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave Egypt. In the movie "The Ten Commandments"  the new Pharaoh Rameses is Moses' childhood rival in the Egyptian court. Scripture does not relate this detail. Moses asks God what name (remember that this Torah portion is called shemot or "names". God replies: "I AM THAT I AM". [Exodus 3: 14]. The Hebrew, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, could be translated: I was, am and will be what I was, am and will be. Biblical Hebrew only has two verb tenses, the perfect tense and the imperfect tense. The Kabbalists regard this name as the holiest utterable name of God, and associate it with Keter, the Crown, or first sefirah of the Tree of Life, the primordial and cosmic concept of oneness.

He also teaches Moses the Ineffable Name, the Tetragrammaton, and tells Moses to reveal this name to the Hebrews in Egypt. One of the names for God in Hebrew is HaShem, or the Name.

Moses wants proof he can show the Hebrews, and God enchants his shepherd's staff so that it can turn into a snake at Moses' will. I do not know the Masonic significance of this, but it does appear on some Masonic tracing-boards. I own a Wade & Butcher Masonic Straight Razor, most likely manufactured in the 1880s, and it has a Masonic tracing-board etched into the blade, with the staff turning into a snake. Mine is not in as good condition as the one in the photo, but they are the same model:

Please let me know in the comments if you know the Masonic significance of this symbol.

Moses sought and gained his father's leave to return to Egypt with his wife and children. During the journey back to Egypt, something weird happened called the "Bridegroom of Blood".
"And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision." [Exodus 4: 24-26].
 It is so weird that the Authorship school of scriptural tradition marks it down as a textual omission.  The traditional interpretation is that God tries to kill Moses, and Zipporah responds by grabbing a flint and circumcising their son, Gershom (or it could be Eliezer). Then she threw the severed foreskin at Moses' feet, and declared, "Surely a bloody husband art thou to me." [Exodus 4: 25]. The term "bloody husband" (chatan dimim) has also been translated as "bridegroom of blood".

It doesn't make much sense, and many scholars are troubled by this passage, especially in its use of pronouns. Who is the "him" that God sought to kill? Which son was circumcised? At whose feet did she throw the foreskin? Who let who go? Why did God want to kill whomever He sought to kill?

God told Aaron to meet Moses his brother in the desert, and they met at Mount Sinai, and embraced and Aaron kissed him, and they shared their stories with each other. They returned to Egypt and gathered the elders of the Hebrews together and announced their plan for liberation, showing the people the miracles God gave them to show them, and won them over. Moses gained an audience with the new Pharaoh, and asked in the name of YHVH to let the Hebrews go, but Pharaoh did not recognize YHVH, and refused. Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh that plagues would come if they were not liberated, but Pharaoh demanded that they all get back to work.

 As punishment, he ordered that the slaves no longer be given straw for the bricks they were forced to make, but rather to gather the straw themselves, without reducing their quota. These were adobe bricks that required straw to hold them together.

Their foremen were flogged for not making their quota of bricks. In their anger, they blamed Moses and Aaron for their troubles. They consulted God about how His plan was making their lives worse, and God told them to watch His plan unfold, how Pharaoh would be forced to let them go.

Va'eira: the plagues begin

Friday, January 20, 2011
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that the Egyptian plagues make me very uncomfortable. What does it mean that God hardens the heart of Pharaoh, and then punishes him for having a hardened heart?

God instructs Moses to inform the Israelites about the Covenant, and the upcoming Exodus, but because of the troubles they have had with the Egyptians because of Moses, they do not care to listen to Moses. So God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh about letting the Israelites go. Included in the plan is the idea that Pharaoh will resist (because God will interfere with his judgment and harden his heart), which will allow God to present a number of gruesome miracles to the Egyptians. The intention was to sear into the consciousness and memory of the Egyptians the power of God. To me, this smacks of the tribalism of the cruder aspect of the God of the Torah, that He favors the Israelites at the expense of the other nations, and that outsiders are outside of His mercy. It also smacks of the revenge fantasies of an oppressed people.

In an audience with Pharaoh, Aaron throws down his staff, and it turns into a viper. Pharaoh's court sorcerers throw down their staves which also turn to vipers, but Aaron's viper devours the other vipers before turning back into a staff of the same thickness as before. This does not impress Pharaoh.

This sets into motion a series of ten plagues God wreaks upon the Egyptians. God has Moses tell Aaron to strike the Nile with his staff, causing the water to turn into blood. This causes all water in Egypt to turn into blood, even the water in wells and cisterns. All the fish in the Nile died of the pollution. Because Pharaoh's sorcerers also could turn water into blood, Pharaoh was not impressed.

After a week of this, God tells Moses to ask Pharaoh again to release the Israelites, threatening an infestation of frogs. Pharaoh refuses, and frogs appear everywhere, and annoy the Egyptians. This annoys Pharaoh, even though his court sorcerers can also summon frogs. Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron, and asks them to beg God to remove the frogs, promising the release of the Israelites and a big sacrifice to God if He will remove the frogs. God relents and the frogs all die, leaving stinky frog corpses throughout Egypt. The people clear the stinky frog corpses away, and Pharaoh reneges on his promise.

God next sends a plague of lice, which swarm and annoy the Egyptians. Pharaoh's sorcerers cannot reproduce the trick, and the lice bite all the animals and humans in Egypt. Pharaoh's sorcerers warn him that this is the finger of God making this happen. Pharaoh refuses to relent.

The next plague is a plague of arov (עָרֹב), the translation of which is in dispute. In the Midrash, Rabbi Nechemia thinks they are flies, but Rabbi Yehuda thinks they are a mixture of wild animals. More of the later Torah commentators regard them as wild animals. The King James Bible has them as swarms of flies. For the first time, the arov will attack only the Egyptians and not the Israelites.

Pharaoh partially relents, and allows the Israelites to sacrifice to God in Egypt, but Moses holds out for a full release. Moses refuses. Pharaoh then allows the Israelites to travel for three days into the desert to sacrifice to God, as long as they pray for Pharaoh as well. But as soon as Moses prays the creatures away, Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and reneges on his promise.

The next plague is that of livestock: horses, cattle, sheep, donkeys and camels in the possession of the Egyptians all die. But none of the Israelites' livestock are affected. But this did not move Pharaoh to release the Israelites.

The next plague is a plague of boils. Moses throws a handful of furnace soot into the air before Pharaoh, and it lands and causes boils on the flesh of the animals and people wherever it lands. The court sorcerers are affected so badly by this that they cannot appear in court to refute Moses and Aaron. This time, God forces Pharaoh to be obstinate, and he refuses to let the Israelites go. God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that the only reason God hasn't killed off the Egyptians yet is because he wants survivors to remain who can tell the story of God's power.

The next plague is a plague of brutal hail, hailstones so big that they can kill whoever goes outside, man or beast. The hailstones kill every human and animal who is outside when they fall. They smash every tree, and destroy all the crops. The hail does not fall on the Israelites. Pharaoh relents.
And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them, I have sinned this time: the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the LORD (for it is enough) that there be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer. [Exodus 9: 27-28].
But as soon as Moses prays the hail away, Pharaoh hardened his heart, and would not let the Israelites go, just as God had predicted.

What are we to make of this? To modern sensibilities, this seems protracted and cruel. And yet, we remember this story to this day because of the number and magnitude of these plagues. From our viewpoint, we know that Israel is released, the Egyptian army is drowned in the Red Sea, and the Hebrews return to the Promised Land and eventually form a kingdom there. These plagues build momentum for the exodus to follow.

Bo: The First Passover

Friday, January 27, 2011
This week's Torah portion consists of the final three plagues and the first Passover. There is a plague of locusts and a plague of darkness, which the Torah describes as tangible, which is intriguing. In each case, Pharaoh concedes to Moses and Aaron, only to have God harden his heart, and take back his offer. God lets Moses and Aaron know that he is doing this so that future generations will know that the House of Israel began with ten miraculous plagues, and that the final plague, that of the Firstborn sons of men and beasts, will become firmly affixed with the nation of Israel in the collective psyches of the survivors.

In order that the destroyer does not slay the Israelites with the Egyptians, God commands the Israelites to slaughter young ruminants, either lambs or kids, and to splash their blood on the lintels and doorposts of their houses. The inhabitants are to eat the whole animal, who is not to be dressed or beheaded, and eat as much of it as they can, burning the remains to ashes that they cannot consume. They are to cook their dough without letting it rise, and to eat unleavened bread for the next seven days. They are to eat fully clothed, with their belongings packed up, and their staves in their hands, ready to make their escape. The day before, each Israelite is to borrow from their Egyptian neighbors as much gold and silver as they can carry (and God will move the hearts of the Egyptians to give it to them), so that they will have a treasury with which to form the new nation.

A Jewish tradition from a Baraita (from outside of Talmud or Midrash) tells that in the time of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians brought the Israelites before Alexander and charged them with borrowing and never returning their gold and silver, and demanded a fair return. In their defense, Gebiah ben Pesisa, speaking on behalf of the Israelites, asked the Egyptians for evidence, and the Egyptians presented the Torah as evidence, opened to Exodus 12: 36. Gebiah also presented the Torah, opened to Exodus 12: 40, and demanded back wages for 600,000 men for 430 years of slavery. The Egyptians, the Baraita informs us, dropped their case.

Beshalach: The Song of the Sea

Tuesday, January 31, 2012
This week's Torah portion starts the Exodus in earnest. Moses leads the Children of Israel to the Sea of Reeds (יַם-סוּף), rather than by the Philistine Highway, which would have been the quicker route. Taking the highway would have been shorter, but it also would have allowed the Egyptians to catch up with them more quickly. As we shall see, God hardened Pharaoh's heart one more time, and made him summon his army to retrieve or kill the Israelites in the desert.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. As I noted earlier, Midrash informs us that Serah bat Asher took special care to make sure that the Children of Israel remembered to take Joseph's bones with them. God went before them as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, as their guide. This cloud/fire pillar stayed with them the entire time they were in the Wilderness. God told Moses to let them camp, to appear to the oncoming Egyptian army is if the Children of Israel were lost in the desert, to spur the army to come get them. Pharaoh sent 600 of his own chariots, along with the entire chariot corps of Egypt, with enough infantry to support them, and spurred them on to catch up with the Israelites in the desert.

The Egyptian army catches the Israelites with their backs to the sea. They are trapped. The Israelites complain to Moses (not for the last time): "Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness." [Exodus 14: 11-12].

My rabbi likes to remark that this is one of the oldest Jewish jokes ever recorded. Egypt is a land of pyramids, tombs and sarcophagi. If they were all going to die, wouldn't it have been better to die where all the graves were?

God tells Moses to raise his staff and extend his hand over the sea, splitting the sea into two walls of water, with dry land between them. Moses does so, and the Israelites escaped through the parted sea to the other shore. God put the pillar of fire between the Israelites and the Egyptians to block the army. Once the Israelites were on the other side, the pillar of fire moved to the other shore, allowing the Egyptians to enter the narrow channel of dry land, but preventing them from reaching the other side. Their chariot wheels and horses' hooves began to stick to the muddy ground, and were stuck. Then God told Moses to move his hand and allow the sea to move back to its natural position, filling the channel with water and drowning the Egyptian army. Everybody drowned.

There is a lovely Midrash that Pharaoh was the sole survivor, but having lost his entire army, could never return to Egypt again, and wandered the earth as a destitute. Many years later, he settled in Nineveh and eventually became their king. When he was King of Nineveh, the prophet Jonah appeared and warned the city of Nineveh that if they did not repent their wicked ways, in forty days they would be overthrown. The former Pharaoh, hearing the prophecy, immediately repented and put on sackcloth and sat in ashes in penance. He had tangled with the Hebrew God once before, and was not stupid enough to try a second time.

In triumph, Moses and the Israelites sing a song, later to be called the Song of the Sea [Exodus 15: 1-18]. This is one of the most special and important liturgical songs in Judaism. The tune could be one of the oldest tunes still known. When this passage is recited in the Torah in a synagogue, the congregants stand up and sing along with the chanter. When this passage is written in a Torah scroll, it uses a special brick-like pattern that is very striking.

The song is also sung every morning during Orthodox services. One of my rabbis likes to recite Exodus 15: 2 as a nigun.
עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה

In English: "The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation."

Exodus 15: 3 always gave me trouble, in the King James Version: "The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name." In Hebrew, Rashi interprets this as "The Lord is a master of warfare; YHVH is His name." This makes more sense. The idea that the One is a man of war is repugnant. No offense to my friends in the armed services, but the idea that the Great Architect of the Universe is (not "is like", but is) a man of war is too severe a diminishment of His being, and paints too destructive a metaphor. But the Master of All is a Master of War as well, but that is just one tiny facet of the Being named with the Ineffable Name.

Exodus 15: 11 is said before the Amidah prayer, the most sacred prayer in the prayer cycle, to be recited morning, noon and night, and an extra time on the Sabbath, and yet an extra time on Yom Kippur. "Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?".

After this first song, Miriam, Moses' sister, took a hand drum and took all the women and danced and sang with them. Midrash has it that they also sang the Song of the Sea.

After this, Moses led the Children of Israel into the Wilderness. They traveled for three days without finding any water, and the people grew very upset. moses found them a spring of bitter water, and God showed Moses a certain type of wood that would render the water drinkable, and they were able to drink. They camped for a while in Elim, in an oasis of twelve springs of water and seventy date palms. After this, they entered the Wilderness of Sin (this has nothing to do with the English word sin, but is the Hebrew name of the area). There in the desert, the Israelites began to complain again, again wishing that they were back in Egypt: "Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." [Exodus 16: 3].

God and Moses respond with the gift of manna. In Exodus 16: 4-36, a passage that has an important meaning today, the Torah describes how manna is to be the food for the Israelites in the Wilderness. Jews who are out of work, or who are worried about subsistence, recite this passage aloud every morning (except on the Sabbath). It is meant to summon God's aid in times of hardship.

I do this when I am unemployed, or low on funds. In a sense, this behavior could be interpreted as a desperate superstition, and I am not of the opinion that reciting this passage magically makes food appear. But it does reorient my consciousness around survival issues in a way that I find comforting and sustaining. I recite the passage after my usual morning prayers, while still wearing my tallit, and there is a prayer in the Orthodox prayerbook that goes with this passage that I recite as well.

That evening, a flock of quail swarmed the area where the Israelites were camping, providing enough meat for everyone to eat until sated. The next morning, the dew covered the camp, and when the dew evaporated, there was a fine layer of grains on the surface of the ground that almost looked like frost. Under Moses' direction, the Israelites collected the grains, which were manna, and doled out an equal portion for each person. Everyone got their fill of food. No matter how much each individual gathered, there ended up being about two quarts for each person. Moses warned them to eat their fill that day, and to leave nothing over until the next morning, exhausting their supply. Some faithless people hoarded their portions only to find that the next day it was full of worms and putrid. The next day, the manna appeared again. The manna that nobody gathered melted in the hot noonday sun. On Friday, the people found that they had gathered a double portion, about a gallon for each person, and they came and told Moses. Moses let them know that the second portion was for the Sabbath, which they were all to observe from now on.

On the Sabbath morning, the manna was not putrid and was without worms, and no new manna appeared, even though some stubborn people went out to collect it, violating the Sabbath.

Manna looked like white coriander seed, but it tasted like dough kneaded with honey. Moses told Aaron to collect a jar of it as a keepsake so that future generations could see what the Israelites ate in the Wilderness. Legend has it that the jar stayed in the Temple of Solomon until it was sacked by the Babylonians, and then lost to history.

Pretty soon afterwards, they traveled further into the desert, ran out of water, and the people began to quarrel with Moses. God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and it flowed with water. The rock is called Meribah. This is a different incident than the rock of Meribah in the Book of Numbers, where God tells Moses to touch his staff to the rock, and instead Moses strikes the rock, and for which God refuses to allow him to enter the Promised Land. I always thought that was a bit harsh, but I also understand that Moses is the prophet of the transition, and that it required Moses to die and Joshua to take over before the Israelites could enter Canaan. This requires a lot of thought, and I will discuss it later when we get to the Book of Numbers.

Finally in the Torah portion, the tribe of Amalek launched a surprise attack upon the Children of Israel. They are considered to be the descendants of Esau (I've said a lot about Esau previously), and have become a symbol for every group that has ever tried to exterminate the Jews. Thus Agag was the King of Amalek whom Saul destroyed with the prophet Samuel. Haman was said to be a descendent of Amalek. The Romans were considered Amalek by the Zealots, and the Spanish Jews regarded the Inquisition as Amalek. Twentieth century Jews regarded Hitler as Amalek, and there are extremists among the West Bank settlers who regard all Palestinians as Amalek.

Moses had Joshua assemble an attack force to respond to Amalek's attack, and Moses went to the top of the hill with his staff. As long as Moses held his hands up, Israel would prevail against Amalek, but whenever he would lower his hands, Amalek would prevail. Moses grew too tired to raise his hands, so they placed stones for Moses to sit on, and Aaron and Chur reached under his elbows to prop him up.

At this point, the Torah veers into genocidal sentiments. God tells Moses that He will totally obliterate the memory of Amalek from "under the heavens" [Exodus 17: 14].

There is one mitzvah (commandment) to blot out the memory of Amalek, and another to never forget their perfidy in attacking when Israel was weakest, and a third to remember Amalek. How do you resolve this? Especially since God commands Saul to exterminate every man, woman and child, and all the livestock of the tribe of Amalek? In fact, God punishes Saul for not exterminating everyone of Amalek.

The nice, liberal, touchy-feely way to resolve this is to decide that Amalek was indeed wiped out millennia ago, and that Amalek no longer exists, but is a memory about previous oppression and resistance.

I prefer to use the mitzvot about Amalek to remind Jews that we too exterminated a whole race of people, just as the Spanish did with the Arawaks of Jamaica. We were genocidal once, and we can be again if we are not careful.

Yitro: Learn To Delegate Authority

Monday, Februray 6, 2012
Moses' father-in-law, Jethro ( יִתְרוֹ, or Yitro, in Hebrew), comes to visit Moses in the Wilderness, and brings Moses' wife Zipporah, and their sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Gershom was the child who was circumcised during the "Bridegroom of Blood" incident. Jethro finds that Moses is swamped with work judging various complaints among the Children of Israel. The Torah tells us that around 600,000 adult men were in the Wilderness with Moses. Considering that they had mothers, wives, daughters and sons, we can estimate that a crowd of roughly two million people were in the camp being led by Moses and Aaron. Moses was the only lawgiver, executive, or magistrate for this unhappy and unruly mob. That meant that he had to do nothing but listen to cases brought before him from dawn until dusk every day.

Jethro is described as a Priest of Midian, and also as a Sheikh of Midian. Jethro is clearly a successful leader himself. He sees the condition Moses finds himself in, and he is critical:

"And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even? And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God: When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws. And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God: And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee. If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace. So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves." [Exodus 18: 14-26].
Jethro understands that a good leader delegates authority to subordinates. He doesn't micromanage. He sustains an organizing structure, and trusts the people within his structure to manage their portions of authority, thereby making the whole of it to work to everyone's advantage. The tribes therefore become jurisdictional entities, each of which are comprised of groups of a thousand people, each of which are comprised of ten groups of a hundred people, each comprised of two groups of fifty, each of which are comprised of five groups of ten. Each group has a leader who is capable of handling issues within his group. If a group of ten could not resolve an issue, it went to the leader of the group of fifty, and from there, if necessary, to the group of a hundred, and from there, if necessary, to the group of a thousand, and from there, if necessary, to the tribal head, and from there, if necessary, to Moses, and if necessary, to God.

The Masonic lodge opens at the will and pleasure of the Worshipful Master. A Master is presumably a ritualist, dinner planner, head almoner, a second secretary, head ambassador, head of social activities, a second treasurer, candidate educator, and has many other duties besides. But a bad master does all of these things without delegating authority to others. Truth be told, the Tyler should be in charge of security, the Senior Steward should lead the Junior Steward in helping set up and clean up the meals, the Junior Deacon should be in charge of the candidates during degree work, and should assist the Tyler in matters of security, the Senior Deacon should be in charge of all the junior officers and their floor work, the Junior Warden should be organizing the meals and in charge of the Stewards, the Senior Warden should be in charge of all the officers below him in authority, and make sure the Junior Steward is taking care of the candidates, and should be in charge of candidate education, the Marshall should be in charge of all floor work and should also be in charge of  accommodating all visitors, the Secretary should be in charge of dues, lodge communications, minutes and balloting, the Treasurer should be in charge of lodge finances, and making sure the Secretary collects dues, the Ritualist should be in charge of all ritual done in the lodge and should have a hand in candidate education, and there should be a head of social activities, an almoner, a head of candidate education, a lodge ambassador, and the Worshipful Master should check in with everyone and make sure they are doing their jobs, and step in when necessary to make final decisions.

Without delegating authority, a lodge is sunk and the Master is miserable.

Similarly, a Grand Lodge has a Grand Master who is the absolute authority for his jurisdiction. But rather than rule by fiat and edicts, the Grand Master understands that lodges are pretty much autonomous entities, and that lodges will properly regulate the men within their lodges. Lodges will defend the West Gate by the use of thorough investigation of candidates and the black cube, and they will regulate the conduct of their men through the use of Masonic trial. The Grand Master delegates a number of District Deputy Grand Masters, each of whom, in Massachusetts, is responsible for roughly eight lodges. The Districts have secretaries, Lodges of Instruction, and various District Officers (I, for example, am the Service Officer for my district). If things get out of hand in a lodge, the District Deputy Grand Master can step in and exert his authority to set things right. Thus, in practice, the Grand Master cares about the Grand Lodge as a whole, and leaves the management of districts and lodges to men in whose authority he trusts. He cares about membership on the whole, but he also has a Membership Committee with a head in place, and trusts them to handle their jobs. He cares about finances, but trusts that the Grand Treasurer has things handled. He gives the Grand Secretary enormous leeway to decide things for himself, as well as a group of Grand Lecturers to handle ritual, a Service Committee to handle charities and the relief of poor and distressed Brothers, their widows and orphans. He has an Education Committee to handle how candidates should be educated, and trusts that through the District Lodges of Instruction, their work is being done.

Thus, every Grand Master would prefer that if an issue with a Brother or Brethren comes up, the lodge will handle it, and if that fails, the District will handle it. The Grand Master understands that different lodges will have different styles and attitudes, and understands that there is no need to delineate the work of any individual lodge or district officer by a general edict unless the entire Jurisdiction is seriously out of whack, which is very rare. He understands that the average mason only knows the dealings in his own lodge, and if the district intervenes too strongly in a mason's relationship with his lodge, or worse, if the Grand Lodge intervenes too strongly, that the rank-and-file mason will assume that something is seriously wrong with the entire Jurisdiction, or with the Fraternity as a whole. After all, the Craft is made up of men chosen for their strong moral character. We are not ordinary men. Of course some unsuitable men make it past the West Gate, but the Grand Master would rather have a lodge deal with such men than to get his District Deputy involved, or even worse, to get involved himself.

Anyone who reads Masonic blogs these days is aware that some Grand Lodges (although thankfully, not Massachusetts) have had incidents that show that not every Grand Master understands Jethro's lesson to Moses. When Grand Masters legislate their own bigotry by edict, when they throw good men out of the Fraternity without trial, when they feud with other Grand Lodges over petty issues, the whole Fraternity is threatened. This is a volunteer organization, and many otherwise good men will walk away from such nonsense (and rightly so) if they encounter it.

Moses afterwards only heard the cases beyond the ability of the heads of the tribes to solve. Moses was chosen by God and could ask God for clarification, but that didn't mean he had to listen to every petty dispute among two million people.

The Ten Commandments (or more literally, Ten Statements) appear twice in the Torah. In this Torah portion, they are set up with a very dramatic display on Mount Sinai. God warns Moses not to let anyone up on the mountain, or they will die. From the foot of the mountain, the whole congregation of the Children of Israel can see God's presence descend onto the mountain in a cloud. Moses ascends the mountain, and hears the voice of God. God makes ten statements, which are numbered differently in Judaism from the way they are numbered in Christianity.
  1. I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
  2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's. [Exodus 20: 1-17].
Christians regard the first statement as a preamble to the Ten Commandments, and they split the tenth into two commandments. The sixth commandment might be better translated as "Thou shalt not murder", since the Torah allows for killing in war, and for capital punishment. The Talmud argues whether or not the eighth commandment refers specifically to stealing humans, or kidnapping. The Talmud punishes the false witness with the punishment for the crime for which the defendant is charged. Thus in a capital case, the false witness, if discovered, would face the same death penalty.

When this portion is chanted, there is a different trope, or cantillation, for the Ten Statements than would ordinarily be used for these verses. The whole congregation stands and recites along. It is very impressive.

In this version of the fourth commandment, we are commanded to remember (זָכוֹר, or zachor) the Sabbath day. In the version in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to keep (שָׁמוֹר, or shamor) the Sabbath day. Shamor might be better translated in modern English as guard, or observe. The Kabbalists believed that the change of verb was deliberate, and that God commands us to do both; that human language allows for one verb in a sentence, but that God intends us to juxtapose the two verbs into one action. Thus, in the beautiful liturgical love song to God, לכה דודי (Lekha Dodi, or "Come, My Beloved"), the first verse goes as follows:

"Observe" and "recall" in a single utterance,Shamor v'zakhor b'dibur eḥadשמור וזכור בדבור אחד

We were made to hear by the unified God,hishmiʿanu El hameyuḥadהשמיענו אל המיחד

God is one and God’s Name is one,Adonai eḥad ushemo eḥadיי אחד ושמו אחד

In fame and splendor and praiseful song.L'Sheim ulitiferet v'lit'hilahלשם ולתפארת ולתהלה
This song is sung during Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night sabbath services, and it is very lovely. The Sabbath is personified as a bride, and the song sings about rushing forth to the bride's home to escort her to the wedding, where she will be married to God, with all of the Children of Israel as guests at the wedding. The poem describes the consummation of the wedding in fairly explicit language, saying that God will love the Sabbath bride as a groom makes love to his bride (כמשוש חתן על כלה, or Kimsos ḥatan ʿal kalah). This sort of sexualized theophany appears in the poetry of St. John of the Cross, and John Donne, and in much Sufi poetry of Rumi as well, but it is dangerous theologically, and hence not usually mainstream. In many prayerbooks, the language is bowlderized to "as a groom rejoices in his bride", but the Hebrew language is clear.

The people hear the commandments from the foot of Mount Sinai, and they are terrified. They beg Moses to intercede with God on their behalf, but are afraid to death of interacting with God themselves. They beg Moses to insist that God never speak directly to them again. In this is the plight of the Prophet. The average person would rather die than speak to God directly, to even to hear God's voice speak to them directly. The mystic feels otherwise, yearning for God's voice, and willing to risk death to hear it.

Thus alone Moses entered the mists within which God's presence dwelt on the mountain. Each mystic who wishes to behold God must enter the mists, where his senses will fail him, and do so completely alone. That is why the candidate in the EA degree knocks on the West Gate by himself, of his own free will and accord. That is how momentous those three distinct knocks should be for the candidate, as if he were entering the mists on the summit of Mount Sinai.

Nobody has ever said that the Jewish people lack a sense of humor. The Torah portion ends with God telling Moses that if he, or the Priests, enter the stone altar at the Temple, to use a ramp instead of steps, because if they are not wearing underwear, they may accidentally flash God when they lift their knee to step up each step. Seriously, that's the last commandment in this week's Torah portion.

Mishpatim: These are the rules

Friday, February 17, 2012
I have discussed previously that Jewish law recognizes three kinds of mitzvot, or commandments.The first kind  of laws are mishpatim, or ethical rules. These are the ethical guidelines for living that any compassionate person might come up with if they thought about the situation enough. The second kind of laws are the the zakhorim, or tribal (or national) remembrances. These tell the observer to keep in mind the history of the Children of Israel, and help the observer identify with and find his place within the Jewish people as a whole. The most important remembrance is to remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and God brought you out of bondage to make you a free man. The third kind of laws are the chukim, or esoteric rules. These are usually somewhat strange and non-obvious, such as not mixing linen and wool in the same garment. Doing so will not help perpetuate any remembrance, nor will it lead to any ethical action, and yet it is in the Torah, so it falls into the third category. Kabbalists and other Jewish mystics often attach deep significance to the chukim as mystical observances with deep esoteric meaning.

This week's Torah portion is named after the first statistically improbable phrase in the portion. This portion begins, "Now these are the judgments [mishpatim] that thou wilt set before them." [Exodus 21:1]. What follows is a list of 53 ethical rules, that cover a wide range of situations, but all of which are very specific. For example, if an ox gores a human being to death, the ox will be put down, but its owner will not be responsible for the death, unless the ox has a history of aggressive behavior, and has been warned by the community about the ox's behavior, in which case both the ox and its owner will be put to death. [Exodus 21: 28-29].

Some of the rules seem a bit odd today. A male slave is to be freed at the start of the seventh year of servitude, but if the slave wants to remain the property of his master, he will publicly declare that he loves his master and does not wish to go free, upon which his master will bring the slave to a court of law to declare this, and then to the doorpost of his home, and there pierce the slave's ear with an awl against the doorpost.[Exodus 21: 2, 6-7]. Much of this makes sense, except for piercing the slave's ear against the doorpost. It could be that in ancient times, among men only slaves pierced their ears, but that would not explain why it had to be done against the doorpost of his master's house. Jewish law requires a house to have a mezuzah nailed to the doorpost, so maybe, in a sense, the voluntary slave is like a mezuzah, but I admit that's a stretch.

This is one of several places in the Torah where the Lex Talonis appears. Literally, this passage says, "And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." [Exodus 21: 23-25]. It should be strongly noted that Rabbinic Judaism (pretty much every Jew except the Karaites and Samaritans, who collectively number only around a few thousand on earth) does not take this to mean that an eye requires an eye, or that a tooth requires a tooth. This is important. This has been taken throughout the Jewish world to mean that if a person strikes out the eye of another person, striking out the eye of the culprit is the maximal penalty possible. Similarly, the maximum punishment for knocking out a tooth would be to have one tooth knocked out. Even if a person were to sever the foot of the High Priest or the king, the most severe punishment he could receive would be to have his foot severed off. No death penalty could be exacted no matter who received the injury from whom.

By the time of the redacting of the Talmud, this law was interpreted to require monetary damages rather mutilation as the penalty for these offenses. Jews regard punishment by mutilation as barbaric, and have for at least two thousand years.

There is also a kind of Castle Law in these rules. If someone breaks into your home at night, and you kill him, it is not murder, but justifiable homicide. However, if the killing happens during the day, it is murder. [Exodus 22: 1-2].

If a man has to sell his only clothing off his back to repay his debt to you, you have to provide him with clothing by the end of the day, so that he doesn't freeze that night. [Exodus 22: 25-26].

If you come upon your enemy's ox or donkey going astray, you are required to bring it back to him. If you see the beast of burden of someone you hate collapsing under a heavy load, you are required to make every effort to help the animal in distress, even though you might be inclined to do nothing to help your enemy. [Exodus 23: 4-5].

After declaring the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the Torah portion ends with a mystical visionary scene that is much commented upon by the Kabbalists. God tells Moses to bring Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who will later die in a spiritual technology mishap, along with the seventy tribal leaders, with him to appear before God Himself. Moses alone is permitted to approach God directly. Moses lays the laws before the Children of Israel, who collectively and unanimously give their consent. Then Moses leads the gathered party of 72 to ascend Mount Sinai, there to have a collective vision of God: "And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness." [Exodus 24: 10].

The sapphire footstool is much commented upon in Jewish mystical writings. Ezekiel describes the Throne of Glory as made of sapphire. Sapphire appears in many mystical visions in Jewish literature, often being described as utterly transparent, and only blue because the sky is blue. Sapphires in Jewish tradition are emblematical of the Third Eye, and Jewish mystics have a meditation practice of focusing the mind on a single point, imagining that one looks at the point through a third eye made of sapphire.

The Torah tells us that after seeing God, the party of 72 ate and drank. Most commenters regard this as a blasphemous mistake, some going so far as to say that this is why Nadab and Abihu were struck dead in the book of Leviticus. Others interpret the eating and drinking as allegorical, that the vision fed them better than food or drink could. Still others say that the food and drink were celebratory after their collective vision.

The passage ends with Moses entering the cloud at the summit of Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law (which some commentators regard as being made of sapphire), and remaining there for forty days and forty nights. As we shall see, in his absence, much mischief occurs.

Terumah: And let them make Me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.

Friday, February 24, 2012
In this week's Torah portion, God gives Moses instruction for building the Tabernacle, or Mishkan. It is to be made out of materials gathered by all the people, out of precious things in their possessions. Everyone is to contribute to it. There is to be an Ark made of gold and acacia wood to store the Tablets of the Law. The cover of the Ark (the karopet of ha-aron) will be made of gold and will have two cherubs made of the same piece of gold as the cover itself, facing each other with faces downcast but wings spread wide to cover the whole Ark, carved into the top of the cover. God instructs Moses that He will instruct him when Moses puts his head between the two cherubs over the Ark.

There was also to be a table made of acacia wood plated in gold, on which would be placed the showbread. These were twelve loaves of bread (one for each of the twelve tribes) specially baked to sit before the Presence of God. After which, they would be divided among the priests and eaten. It is mentioned in 1 Samuel 21: 4-7 that King David was given the showbread to eat by the High Priest.

The lampstand, or menorah,  was to be made of one enormous, solid piece of gold, hammered into six branches to hold seven lamps. Cups, spheres and flowers were hammered out of the gold to decorate it. The menorah was roughly 150 pounds, made of a single piece of gold.

The cloth of the Tabernacle was to be made of linen and wool, dyed with expensive dyes like techelet and  crimson worm. The Torah forbids wearing clothing made of a mixture of wool and linen, but also insists that the garments of the High Priest be made of a mixture of wool and linen. The dyed cloth was to be woven into a tapestry with cherubs decorating the fabric. Ten such cloths would be made, with each curtain 42 feet by 6 feet in area. They were sewn together in two groups of five with golden fasteners to attach them together, with eleven sheets of goats' wool, of area 45 feet by 6 feet, forming a cover. Five sheets were sewn together, and six sheets were sewn together, with the sixth sheet forming a tent flap for the Tabernacle. A roof was made of ram skins, processed with a type of tanning that made them red, with another roof made of skins processed with a type of tanning that made them blue, called tachashim (תְּחָשִׁים). Some interpreters think that the blue-processed skins were dolphin skins, while others think they were badger, or cow leather that was heavily processed.

The tent beams of the Tabernacle were made of acacia wood plated in gold, and shod with silver. Similar to the cloth of the Tabernacle, a curtain (parokhet) would be made, hanging from the rafters, to shield the Ark from view. As I have previously blogged, parokhet and kaporet are anagrams of each other, as are ha-Aron and Aharon (Aaron). The curtain, along with the wall of the Tabernacle, demarcated the extent of the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle.

Interestingly, in Kabbalah, the word parokhet takes on a transcendental meaning, as the barrier between adjacent higher realms of being. Between the world of Action (or Assiah) and the world of Fomation (or Yetzirah) is a curtain or barrier. And between Yetzirah and the world of Ideas (or B'riah) is a curtain. This barrier is inadvertently amusingly described by OTO devotees as "The Veil of Paroketh" (literally, "The Veil of a Curtain").  And between B'riah and the world of Archetypes (or Atzilut) is a curtain, which the Hermetic tradition calls "The Abyss".

An altar was to be made of acacia wood plated in copper, square with protrusions (literally, "horns") emerging out of each corner. This was for burnt offerings.

The Torah will repeat everything in this Torah portion later on once the people come to actually build these things. Next week, the instructions for preparing the Tabernacle will be given, and then there will be a rather disappointing interlude where Aaron, in Moses' absence, will build a Molten Calf for the Children of Israel to idolize. This will have unfortunate consequences. After which, the people will do what God commanded, and it will be described nearly identically with what was written in this week's Torah portion, with different verb tenses.

Of course, to Masons, "the Tabernacle was a model for King Solomon's Temple, of which this and every well-governed lodge is a representation." If it weren't a few hours before Shabbat, I'd explore this in a lot more detail.

The Haftarah for this Torah portion is from the First Book of Kings [1 Kings 5: 26 - 6:13]:
And the LORD gave Solomon wisdom, as he promised him: and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon; and they two made a league together.
And king Solomon raised a levy out of all Israel; and the levy was thirty thousand men.
And he sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month by courses: a month they were in Lebanon, and two months at home: and Adoniram was over the levy.
And Solomon had threescore and ten thousand that bare burdens, and fourscore thousand hewers in the mountains;
Beside the chief of Solomon's officers which were over the work, three thousand and three hundred, which ruled over the people that wrought in the work.
And the king commanded, and they brought great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones, to lay the foundation of the house.
And Solomon's builders and Hiram's builders did hew them, and the stonesquarers: so they prepared timber and stones to build the house.
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.
And the house which king Solomon built for the LORD, the length thereof was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof twenty cubits, and the height thereof thirty cubits.
And the porch before the temple of the house, twenty cubits was the length thereof, according to the breadth of the house; and ten cubits was the breadth thereof before the house.
And for the house he made windows of narrow lights.
And against the wall of the house he built chambers round about, against the walls of the house round about, both of the temple and of the oracle: and he made chambers round about:
The nethermost chamber was five cubits broad, and the middle was six cubits broad, and the third was seven cubits broad: for without in the wall of the house he made narrowed rests round about, that the beams should not be fastened in the walls of the house.
And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.
The door for the middle chamber was in the right side of the house: and they went up with winding stairs into the middle chamber, and out of the middle into the third.
So he built the house, and finished it; and covered the house with beams and boards of cedar.
And then he built chambers against all the house, five cubits high: and they rested on the house with timber of cedar.
And the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying,
Concerning this house which thou art in building, if thou wilt walk in my statutes, and execute my judgments, and keep all my commandments to walk in them; then will I perform my word with thee, which I spake unto David thy father:
And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.

This should be familiar to every Freemason.

Kabbalah: Permuting the Letters

Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Like being a good Freemason, being a good Jew requires education. I don't mind if non-Jews study Kabbalah (to be honest, I'm delighted). But if you want to learn, learn the real spiritual technology. Please don't mimic superstition and assign to your mimicry a profundity it does not possess. Masons go through the degree work, and then spend a lifetime figuring out what it means. If we did not, the degree work would just be mimicry. Jewish children cram for their b'nei mitzvah and then spend adulthood figuring out what it all means. If they did not, their Torah portion would just be mimicry.
Kabbalah is part (but not all) of "what it all means". Kabbalah is imbued throughout with meaning. There is a sense in most Kabbalah work that the Grand Architect of the Universe is trying to communicate with the practitioner, and most of the details of Kabbalah practice are how to clean up the input stream, because everyday consciousness is too crude to perceive the holy message from above.
Putting your head in a blue wooden box with gold letters painted on it is a good idea if it brings you closer to the GAOTU, and a stupid idea otherwise. If you do it without any real focus, feeling or understanding, it's probably a stupid idea. Please note that I'm not aware that anyone actually puts their head in blue boxes with gold letters painted on them. The purpose of spiritual practice is connection with Deity, and without that connection, it is either rehearsal for a future connection, or it is nonsense.
I thought I would share some real Kabbalah with my readers. Nothing too fancy, just something simple to start out with. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia had a method called tzaraf, in which the letters of a word are permuted, making new words. The Hebrew alphabet is actually an abjad rather than a true alphabet. The consonants are written down, and before the Masoretes of the 7-11th centuries, there were no vowels. In English, "tar" and "rat" are palindromes of each other. In Hebrew, there are two letters for "t", so they might not be. Also, assuming they are spelled with the right "t", "shirt" and "trash" could be palindromes, even though the vowels are different. Palindromes, anagrams, and letter transpositions fascinated the early Kabbalists.
Studying the weekly Torah portion a few weeks ago with a group of students, we noticed a fairly obvious example, but one I'm still meditating upon.
The passage I'm going to use is the verse Leviticus 16:2. In the story from Scripture, Moses and Aaron are at the debut of the Tabernacle. Moses ordains Aaron and his sons as priests before the entire congregation, all 600,000+ Israelite men, and even more women and children. The first sacrifices are offered, and the Glory of God (K'vod YHVH) comes down and consumes the burnt offering on the altar. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, rush forward with fire pans full of "alien fire" and enter the Holy of Holies, and are instantly struck dead. The other sons drag their corpses away, and the ceremonies continue, sons unmourned. There is a long deviation from the plot of the story as Moses explains the dietary laws, postnatal cleanliness, the rules of leprosy, excema and psoriasis, and how to handle mold infestations in clothing or in a house, before God explains to Moses the proper way to enter the Holy of Holies.
I'm sure that all the Master Masons reading this have pricked up their ears at the mention of how to enter the Holy of Holies. God says to Moses:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל-יָבֹא בְכָל-עֵת אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת--אֶל-פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֹן, וְלֹא יָמוּת, כִּי בֶּעָנָן, אֵרָאֶה עַל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת.
To translate: "The LORD said to Moses: 'Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the holy place behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the Ark of the Covenant, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.'" My grasp of Hebrew is weak, so please correct me when I'm mistaken.
Some words to point out: Aaron is אַהֲרֹן or Aharon, and the Ark of the Covenant is הָאָרֹן or ha-Aron. The first two letters are transposed in an odd (1 2) cycle. While the vowels are different, in this case, in Modern Hebrew pronunciation, they sound the same. Aaron is the High Priest, and his ritual takes him before the Ark of the Covenant. A man becomes a holy vessel, a container for the Ten Commandments.
Also, and even more interesting, the curtain is פָּרֹכֶת or parokhet, and the cover of the Ark of the Covenant is כַּפֹּרֶת or kaporet. The ת is fixed in this case, and the other letters are cycled rotationally in an even (1 3 2) cycle. ת is the final letter of the Aleph-Bet, the path from Malkut to Yesod on the Tree of Life, the "The World" card in the Tarot deck. It makes sense for this to be the final letter, and makes sense for it to be fixed, grounded on Earth in our waking reality.
In Kabbalah, the word parokhet is used to mean the veil between worlds, or between states of consciousness. Between waking consciousness, the world of Assiah, and the dream-state of Yetsirah, there is a veil, or parokhet. Between Yetsirah and the world of ideas, Briah, there is another parokhet. Between Briah and the world of archetypes, or Atsilut, there is a veil. The cover of the Ark is described as having two winged Cherubim sitting on top of it. In the Torah, Moses is able to listen to the Voice of God coming from between the two cherubim atop the kaporet. That makes the kaporet a very holy place, the focus of an enormous amount of spiritual energy.
God is telling Moses to tell Aaron (Aharon) when he is allowed to draw back the parokhet and enter the sacred space where the Ark of the Covenant (ha-Aron) rests, the holiest space inside the Holy of Holies. The cover (kaporet) of the Ark is covered by a cloud, and God appears in the cloud. Aharon visits ha-Aron, drawing back the parokhet to reveal the kaporet. The energy released by this is so powerful that Aaron may not do this at will---this is why his sons were struck dead, because they did this heedlessly. It's clear that Nadab and Abihu were killed not as punishment for sin, but because of an accident of spiritual technology, like touching a live wire. There's no moral judgement (necessarily) in getting electrocuted; it just happens.
The scripture passage goes on to describe the ritual for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar, and explains that only on Yom Kippur, dressed in the proper clothing, with the proper sacrificial animals may he enter the Holy of Holies, and only to atone for all of his sins, the sins of his family, and for the sins of the whole Israelite community.
Thus we can only pull back the veil and face the Holy of Holies when we do this not for ourselves, but for a higher purpose. This holy space is not ours in our mundane state of consciousness-- it would destroy us in our regular state. We have to purify ourselves and our motives, atone for our sins, and act for all humanity (v'al kol Yisrael often is taken figuratively to mean all of humanity in scripture). That is why not even a Fellowcraft may enter a lodge of Master Masons unless he is taking his third degree. We have to be someone duly and truly prepared, worthy and well-qualified, to enter the Holy of Holies, and must enter at the right time.
Notice that a simple transposition turns Aaron into the Ark of the Covenant, but a three-cycle is needed to turn the veil into the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. A simple transposition turns a man into a vessel for sacredness, but it takes a 3-cycle to turn the veil into the place from which one can hear God's voice. A 3-cycle can be decomposed into two transpositions, like switching the middle two letters, and then switching the first two letters afterwards. We can decompose the transformation from veil to cover into two steps by first sliding back the veil, and then putting your ears between the cherubs on the cover of the Ark. Thus it is takes a single transformation to convert oneself into a holy vessel but two transformations to hear the Voice of God.

Tetsaveh: all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom

Sunday, February 26, 2012
In this week's Torah portion, God describes to Moses how to prepare the priests, including the High Priest, for consecrating the Tabernacle, and how the priestly duties are to be performed. There is a very detailed description of the High Priest's garments. God tells Moses:
And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty. And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office. And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a broidered coat, a mitre, and a girdle: and they shall make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, and his sons, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office. [Exodus 28: 2-4]
The expression "wise hearted" is in Hebrew, חַכְמֵי-לֵב, or chokmei-leiv. The term Chokmah appears as the second Sefira of the Tree of Life, the immediate state of consciousness after the initial first impluse. It is also the word for wisdom in Hebrew. Leiv is the Hebrew word for heart. The Hebrews regarded the heart as the seat of consciousness. Thus it describes a person whose consciousness is infused with the highest possible wisdom. This is reiterated in the same sentence by the expression "the spirit of wisdom", or רוּחַ חָכְמָה in Hebrew, or ruach chokmah. Ruach is one of many Hebrew words for soul. As the Inuits have many different words for snow, Hebrew has many different words for soul.

The crudest concept of the soul is that of the נֶפֶש, or nefesh. This can also mean "breath", or "life force". Everything that breathes air has a nefesh. That is why Kosher laws classify meat one way and fish another. To the medieval understanding, fish did not breathe air (since they did not understand the function of gills), and thus did not need to be sacrificially slaughtered in a way that took their souls into account. Sometimes this is called the "animal soul". The nefesh is inclined to sin, and in the Mussar tradition, needs to be tamed by higher principles. It is where our impulses, urges and addictions manifest themselves. In a sense, the Entered Apprentice degree is designed to make the candidate aware of his nefesh.

The next most sophisticated concept of the soul is that of the רוּחַ, or ruach. This can also mean "wind", or "spirit". This is particular to man. It is sometimes called the "intellectual soul". It can be moved by reason, and can be strengthened by study, meditation and prayer. The Christian concept of the Holy Spirit originally comes from Judaism, where it is called the ruach ha-kodesh, or literally, "Holy Spirit". When used alone, however, the ruach is the rational soul of an individual, that is, when it does not refer to a ghost. In a sense, the Fellowcraft degree is designed to make the candidate aware of his ruach.

The subtle concept of the soul is that of the נְשָׁמָה, or neshamah. This also translates as "breath", but in a much more subtle sense. This is a portion of the Divine housed in the human soul. Jews believe that the neshamah cannot be tainted by sin. In Jewish mysticism, the first objective in starting one's spiritual path is to waken the neshamah. The morning prayers includes the line: "My God, the soul (neshamah) that You have placed in me is pure." The last line of Psalm 150 states: כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה, תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ, or "Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD." [Psalm 150: 6]. I would translate line as "Everything that has a neshamah, by breathing praises God."

It is a focus of Jewish meditation to pull the center of consciousness from the nefesh, to the ruach, to the neshamah. In a sense, the Master Mason degree is designed to make the candidate aware of his neshamah.

So who made Aaron's garments? Those whose hearts are directed by the spirit of the highest conceivable form of wisdom, those whom God has infused with the spirit of that wisdom. This is what Freemasonry aspires to, and what alone qualifies us to do our Work.

Ki Tisa: I Beseech Thee, Show Me Thy Glory

Tuesday, March 6, 2012
In this week's Torah portion, Moses asks God to allow him to behold God’s Presence (Exodus 33:18). Literally, the word used that we translate as presence (or glory) is כְּבֹד, or kavod. This term, when combined with God’s name (כְּבֹד יְהוָה), can itself be one of the names of God. This presence is a manifestation of God on Earth. The pillar of fire and column of smoke that follow the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai are described as kavod YHVH, as is the mysterious force that is present in the Tabernacle, and later, the courtyard of the Temple, that receives the animal sacrifices. This power is so terrible and profound that it can kill a human being unprepared to receive it. In the Book of Leviticus, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, rush into the Tabernacle with incense pans burning with “אֵשׁ זָרָה, or alien fire” [Leviticus 10: 1], and are immediately struck dead. The term used for the Presence of God in Leviticus 10:2 is יְהוָה לִפְנֵי, or before the Face of God. This is another expression, used with similar meaning to the Presence of God. Thus, Moses’ request is audacious and perilous, because an ordinary man would be killed in such an interaction.

God responds: “And He said, I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And He said, Thou canst not see My face: for there shall no man see Me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by Me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with My hand while I pass by: And I will take away Mine hand, and thou shalt see My back parts: but My face shall not be seen.” [Exodus 33:19-23].
Moses wakes up the next morning, and alone, climbs Mount Sinai, bringing with him two tablets of stone. At the summit, God descended in a cloud, stood with Moses, and proclaimed the name of God [Exodus 34: 5]. The nature of the proclamation, given in the next two verses, is one of the foundational scriptural passages of the Jewish religion, and is known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The enumeration is traditional, as is the interpretation.
1.      יְהוָה: YHVH. Compassion before a person sins.
2.      יְהוָה: YHVH. Compassion after a person has sinned.
3.      אֵל: El. One of the more ancient names of God. Mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need.
4.      רַחוּם: Rachum, or Merciful. Merciful, that humankind may not be distressed.
5.      חַנּוּן: Chanun, or Gracious. Gracious if humankind is already in distress.
6. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם: Erech Apayim, or Slow to Anger.
7. רַב-חֶסֶד: Rav Chesed, or Great Loving-kindness.
8. אֱמֶת: Emet, or Truth.
9. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים : Notser Chesed La’alafim, or Keeping Loving-kindness unto the thousandth generation.
  1. נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן : Noseh Avon, or Forgiving Iniquity.
  2. נֹשֵׂא פֶשַׁע : Noseh Peshah, or Forgiving Transgression.
  3. נֹשֵׂא חַטָּאָה : Noseh Chata’ah, or Forgiving Sin.
  4. וְנַקֵּה: V’naqeh, or And Pardoning.

In the King James Version, the whole passage reads: “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” [Exodus 34: 6-7], which misses the last attribute in its translation.
This passage gets recited, given a quorum of worshippers, on every holy day that does not coincide with the Sabbath, and also on Yom Kippur Eve.
This, the Book of Exodus tells us, is God’s way of showing Himself to Moses. In other places in the Torah, God reveals to mortals either through an angel or group of angels, like He did with Abraham and Jacob, among others; or through a voice, as He did with Moses and Aaron. We know that direct revelation can be deadly to the unprepared and uninitiated. In a real sense, God is merciful to humankind by not revealing Himself directly to us, which would kill us.
In the middle of the 16th century, the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote Tomer Devorah, or The Palm Tree of Deborah (published posthumously in 1588). This was a book of Mussar, or ethics. In it, he advises the reader that the best way to lead a moral life is to imitate God. To do this, the reader is shown the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and is given a chapter each in which Cordovero explores how to imitate that particular attribute. In the introduction, he makes an astonishing claim, which deserves to be quoted in length:
“[God is] a patient King Who bears insult in a manner that is above human understanding. For behold, without doubt, there is nothing hidden from His providence. Furthermore, there is no moment when man is not nourished and does not exist by virtue of the divine power which flows down upon him. It follows that no man ever sins against God without the divine affluence pouring into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. But the Holy One, Blessed is He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffers it. Nor must you say that He cannot withhold that good, God forefend, for it lies in His power in the moment it takes to say the word ‘moment’ to wither the sinner's hand or foot, as he did to Jeroboam. And yet though it lies in His power to arrest divine flow - and He might have said: ‘If you sin against Me do so under your own power, not with Mine’ - He does not, on this account, withhold His goodness from man, bearing the insult, pouring out His power and bestowing of His goodness. This is to be insulted and bear the insult, beyond words. This is why the ministering angels refer to the Holy One, Blessed is He, as ‘the patient King.’ And this is the meaning of the prophet's words: ‘Who is a God unto Thee?’ He means: ‘Thou, the good and merciful, art God, with the power to avenge and claim Thy debt, yet Thou art patient and bearest insult until man repents.’ Behold this is a virtue man should make his own, namely, to be patient and allow himself to be insulted even to this extent and yet not refuse to bestow of his goodness to the recipients.
…for  a destroying angel is created whenever a man sins, as we have been taught: ‘He who commits a sin acquires a prosecutor for himself,’ who stands before the Holy One, Blessed is He, saying: ‘So-and-so made me.’ As no creature can exist without the divine flow of power how does the destroying angel who stands before Him exist? It would only be right if the Holy One, Blessed is He, were to say: ‘I will not nourish this destroying angel, let him go to the one who made him to be sustained by him.’ If He were to say this the destroyer would at once descend to snatch the sinner's soul or to cut it off or the sinner would be obliged to expiate his offence in creating the destroyer by suitable punishment unto the latter is made naught. The Holy One, Blessed is He, does not behave in this fashion. He bears the sin and endures it. He nourishes the destroyer and sustains it as He does the whole world until one of the three things happens. Either the sinner repents and makes an end of the destroying angel by the severity of the penances he inflicts upon himself. Or the righteous Judge brings the destroyer to naught by bringing suffering or death upon the sinner. Or the sinner descends to Hell to pay his debt.
This is the meaning of Cain's plea ‘My sin is too great to bear,’ interpreted by our Rabbis of blessed memory as: ‘Thou bearest (that is to say, Thou nourisheth and sustaineth) the whole world; is my sin so heavy that Thou canst not bear it (that is, sustain it until I repent)?’
This is the greatest quality of tolerance, that He nourishes and sustains the evil creature brought from which a man should learn until the latter repents. From which a man should learn the degree of patience in bearing his neighbor's yoke and the evils done by his neighbor even when those evils still exist. So that even when his neighbor offends he bears with him until the wrong is righted or until it vanishes of its own accord and so forth.”

This illustrates the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy in a very remarkable way. The image that Cordovero creates is that of a sinner doing something that offends God, and having God exert more energy into preserving the sinner than He does in correcting the sin. God could easily roll back His Divine blessing of protection an iota in reaction to the sin, but He does not. If God bears our sins which are insults directed at Him, with such patience, surely we can bear the insults of our fellow mortals with the same equanimity.
Cordovero personifies the offense that sin creates as an avenging angel, or demon, that exists to devour the soul of the sinner, and God’s love for us is so great that God keeps the demon from devouring us even when our sin creates the demon. The demon needs energy to sustain its existence, and a just God could demand that we provide the energy or life-force that the demon requires, but instead nourishes the demon until a) the sinner repents and does penance for the sin, b) God brings suffering or death upon the sinner, or c) the sinner descends into Hell (literally, Gehinnom, or Purgatory) to burn off his sin before entering the World to Come, or the afterlife. I have not encountered a more striking illustration of the nearly-unfathomable forgiving nature of God, who could destroy us with the tiniest relenting of his awesome merciful protection, and yet suffers our insults to Him with great patience.

Vayakhel: Chokmah, Binah and Da'at

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
The Torah is divided by the rabbis into 54 Torah portions, or parashiot. The Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, meaning it is based on both the sun and the moon. The Islamic calendar is lunar; it is defined by twelve months, each of which is defined by the moon from new to waxing to full to waning to the next new moon. The challenge is that twelve lunar months is 354.37 days whereas the solar year is 365.24 days. That means that the two means of reckoning the year diverge by about 11 days. So a date in a purely lunar calendar will drift throughout the seasons as the years progress. The sacred month of Ramadan can appear in the winter when days are short, or in the summer when days are long and heat increases people's thirst, or anywhere in between.

The Jewish holidays are seasonal. Passover is a celebration of springtime. Shavuot is a celebration of summer, and Sukkot is a harvest festival in the autumn. The Jews wanted a lunar month but wanted to keep their seasonal festivals, so they came up with a lunisolar calendar. Each month is lunar, so to adjust the calendar to keep the months aligned with the seasons, they have a leap month every few years. The month of Adar becomes the months of Adar I and Adar II. The rabbis of the Talmudic era divided the Torah into 54 portions so that, with a few special Sabbaths outside of the cycle (like during the High Holy Days), they would fit into the 13 month calendar. On non-leap years, like 5772, the current year, some of the shorter Torah portions are doubled up so that the cycle fits into a 12 month year. This week is the first such double parashah, where Vayakhel and Pekudei are bundled together as Vayakhel/Pekudei.

In blogging about each Torah portion, I had to make a decision this week as to whether to consider each portion separately, or to treat Vayakhel/Pekudei as one portion. I have decided to treat each portion separately, although each treatment may be shorter than my regular treatments (which is fine: the passages themselves are shorter).

Vayakhel is not the first mention of the craftsmen Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur (B'tzalel ben Uri ven Chur) of the tribe of Judah in the Torah, but it is the first in which he appears in person. Previously (Exodus 31: 2-3), God told Moses about Bezalel, and told Moses that He had filled Bezalel with wisdom, understanding and knowledge. These words in Hebrew are Chokmah, Binah, and Da'at, and the first two are Sephirot on the Tree of Life, holding the second and third positions. Da'at is sometimes considered a Sephirah, but more often it is considered a pseudo-sephirah, or something inferior to an actual sephirah. This is strange, and needs some explaining.

The first Sephirah on the Tree of Life is Keter, or the Crown. This is the first manifestation of Being, as Ain Soph precedes Being. Keter is utterly abstract, the Prime Movement of the Prime Mover, the first inkling of the first actuality. It immediately emanates into a polarity: yin and yang, male and female, the first dyad. The male pole is called Chokmah, or wisdom. The female pole is called Binah, or understanding. These one-word translations do not do these concepts sufficient justice. They cannot be conceptualized without a lot of meditation.

The synthesis of the two is called Da'at, or knowledge. It sits inside a hexagon of the first six Sephirah, but is often not considered a Sephirah itself. In the Golden Dawn system, Da'at sits in the Abyss, the barrier between the three lesser worlds of Ideas, Formations, and Action (Briah, Yetzirah, and Assiah) and the greater world of emanations (Atzilut).In the Western Hermetic tradition, this Abyss is absolutely perilous. The adept has to cross the abyss, but if they tarry or get bogged down, or if they try to keep their egos from being annihilated in the process, they will fall into the abyss of which there is no escape. Aleister Crowley claims that the Abyss is populated by the demon Choronzon, whose number is 333,, who will devour your soul if he detects any trace of ego remaining in you when you encounter him.

All this is much more innocent in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition. Da'at is knowledge. It is the synthesis of Chokmah and Binah, wisdom and understanding. It is not a Sephirah, but it valuable nonetheless. In the form of Hasidism under the Chabad Lubovich school, ChaBaD is itself an acronym. Chokmah, Binah, Da'at. Chabad philosophy is encapsulated in the Tanya, the magnum opus of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. The Tanya is a plain language treatise on Lurianic Kabbalah written as to be understood by the layman as a rational philosophy. At the time, this was an extraordinarily controversial thing to publish, as Kabbalah was a closely-guarded secret whose adherents required proficiency with Torah and Talmud from any potential student. Chabad believes that it is information that should be made accessible to any Jew whatsoever. Chabad also has its own unique interpretation of proper Jewish orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which can sometimes be controversial.

So Bezalel was chosen because God had filled him with Chokmah, Binah, and Da'at, and that gave him the power to construct the Tabernacle. In a very real sense, he is to the Tabernacle what Hiram Abiff is to the Temple, with the noted exception that there is nothing in the legends about Bezalel's death. The Kabbalists regarded Bezalel as able to form letters out of nothing, and to rearrange them to shape the substance of the universe as he saw fit. The name B'tzal-el means in the shadow of God. Midrash says that although God twice showed Moses the design of the Menorah, or lampstand, Moses was unable to grasp the complexities of God's concept for it. When Moses described what he understood to Bezalel, however, Bezalel understood immediately, and was able to create it from a single giant piece of hammered gold. The Talmud says that Bezalel was only thirteen when he fashioned the Tabernacle, but was of great wisdom, and Midrash says that he was the grand-nephew of Moses, through Bezalel's grandfather Hur (Chur).

Pekudei: the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle

Thursday, March 15, 2012
This Torah portion finishes the Book of Exodus with the completion of the Tabernacle. In this passage, Freemasons in the York Rite can reflect upon a few things that relate to the Mark Master Mason degree and the Most Excellent Master Mason degree.

Exodus 38:25 gives the total of the one-half shekel census tax levied on the people. Each of the men over 20 years of age among the Children of Israel was required to give half a silver shekel as tribute to pay for the building of the Tabernacle. Capitular Masonic tradition, probably from the late 18th or early 19th century, equates a silver half-shekel with a quarter dollar coin, especially back when such coins were made of silver. The complete tally from this tribute was about 15,000 troy pounds of silver. There was also collected, from voluntary offerings, roughly 4400 troy pounds of gold, and roughly 10,600 troy pounds of copper. This was melted down and used in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Much of the passage is a repeat from a few weeks ago, when the future construction was described by God to Moses. In this passage, Bezalel and Oholiab construct the Tabernacle according to this description. The description of the vestments of the High Priest is particularly interesting. The robes were made of sky-blue, purple and crimson threads, using dyes from sea-snails, worms and plants. Gold was beaten into thin sheets, and sliced into threads which were woven into the fabric of the garments. The ephod, belt, and breastplate were fabricated. The breastplate was a doubled square, just as the Lodge Room is a doubled cube. The hem of the robe was decorated with pomegranates and bells, in sequential order, as in pomegranate, bell, pomegranate, bell, all along the edge.

Moses, seeing the work, blessed it and blessed the workers. On the first day of the first month of the second year of the Exodus, Moses and the Levites erected the Tabernacle for the first time. Exodus 40: 20 tells us that Moses put the Tablets of Testimony in the Ark of the Covenant, set the carrying poles on the ark, and put the karopet (covering) on the Ark. He then brought the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies within the Tabernacle, and shielded it from view with the parokhet (curtain). At each step, the Book of Exodus describes each thing Moses does to erect the Tabernacle, followed by כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, or "as the Lord commanded Moses".

Finally, Moses placed a drape over the entrance to the Tabernacle, and with this, completed all the work. The Cloud that led the Children of Israel covered the Tabernacle, and it was filled with k'vod YHVH (the Glory of God). Moses could not come into the Tabernacle, because the Cloud rested on it, and it wis filled with the Glory of God. When the Cloud lifted off of the Tabernacle, it was a signal that it was time to move forward in their journeys. The Cloud appeared during the day, and by night, a fire was in the Tabernacle (but did not burn it).

This mysterious Glory of God came to be equated with the Shekhinah, or the feminine indwelling Divine Presence of God. The Shekhinah dwelt inside the Tabernacle, and later dwelt inside the Holy of Holies of King Solomon's Temple (and presumably, but more debatably, the Second Temple as well). This presents a real paradox. How can an omnipresent Deity dwell in one particular portion of space and time? This is the question that King Solomon asked at the consecration of the Temple: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" [1 Kings 8: 27].

Indeed, during an ordinary regular year or ordinary leap year, this passage about the Consecration of the Temple (1 Kings 7: 51 - 8: 21) is read as a supplemental Scripture passage (or haftarah) after the Torah reading. The story in these two chapters from the First Book of Kings every Freemason should know intimately.

This year, 5772, this Saturday is a special Sabbath, Shabbat Parah, or the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. I have blogged about the Red Heifer before, when explaining about chukim, or esoteric mitzvot. It is probably the most mysterious commandment in the Torah. When someone is spiritually contaminated by exposure to a human corpse, they must purify themselves by being anointed with the ashes of a heifer who is entirely red in color (two non-red hairs on her entire body disqualifies her), who has never worked as a draught animal. The heifer is to be ritually slaughtered, and then burned to ashes, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and threads dyed with the dye of the crimson worm.  The ash mixture is mixed with pure water and contained in a vessel. A bunch of hyssop is dunked in the mixture, and then splashed on the contaminated person, on the third, and seventh days of their impurity. The priest who performs this ablution is ritually contaminated until sundown, and must bathe himself and his clothes.

Jewish tradition tells us that from Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple, only nine such perfect Red Heifers were ever located, slaughtered and used. The ashes of the last heifer were exhausted during the Talmudic period, and now, no Jew who has been exposed to a corpse has any way to purify himself. Jews even today will keep track of whether they are from the tribe of Levi, or whether they come from a line of kohanim, or priests. Hence the common Jewish last names of Levy, ben Levi, Lewis, Cohen, Kahn, Caen, etc. Cohens are advised never to attend a funeral, that they might not be irremediably contaminated by contact with a corpse.

This is a strange commandment. There is a midrash that after God imbued King Solomon with wisdom, he was asked if he now understood all the mitzvot in the Torah. He replied that he understood all of them except the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.

There is a tenet of some Christian eschatology that Christ will not return until the Third Temple is built in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. This would require a new red heifer to purify the Temple builders and priests. To this end, a group of evangelical farmers are trying to breed a perfect red heifer. Some Jews believe that the red heifer has to be born in Israel, so work is being done both in the USA and in Israel to provide this animal through selective breeding. I'm not sure what planning is being done to relocate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, and how well such planning is being received by those who worship at those holy sites.

Shabbat Parah is the Shabbat after Purim. This year's Purim day 2, or Purim Shushan, extended into the Sabbath, so Shabbat Parah is this Friday night into Saturday morning.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק


Vayikra: Making Sacrifices

Thursday, March 22, 2012
This week begins the Book of Leviticus, probably the most misunderstood book in the Torah. The book begins with a detailed discussion of different animal sacrifices, tells of the ghastly botched inauguration of the Tabernacle, and discusses the concept of readiness and unreadiness for ritual activity in more detail than most people are comfortable with. Most people within the Judeo-Christian tradition are deeply uncomfortable with its frankness, harshness, and profound strangeness.

It must be understood that Judaism prior to the fall of the Second Temple was, as all ancient religions were, centered around sacrificing animals, birds, and grain products. The parameters of worship, observance, penance, and celebration were based around the sacrifice of cattle, sheep, goats, birds, and measures of grain. This is pretty much baffling to modern sensibilities, but the ancient soul was buoyed and awestruck by these sacrifices, and in them found the bulk of what for them constituted worship.

The Rabbis of the post-Talmudic era have struggled with this, as it is so alien to what we consider a cultured understanding of Deity, faith and worship. We know that when Titus destroyed the Second Temple, the portion of Jewish observance centered around animal sacrifices died out, and with it, the hereditary priesthood, which was centered around the Temple sacrifices. A group of rabbis gathered in the city of Tiberias in Israel and collectively decided that, without a Temple towards which to direct sacrifices, Jews should offer prayers instead, a prayer session for each designated time for sacrifice. Instead of morning sacrifices, afternoon sacrifices and evening sacrifices, with an extra sacrifice on the Sabbath, and yet another on Yom Kippur, instead we have, respectively, Shacharit prayers, Minchah prayers, Ma'ariv prayers, Musaf prayers, and Ne'ilah prayers. This transformation saved the Jewish religion, but much more importantly, it made Judaism a modern religion. There are still some Orthodox Jews who want to rebuild the Temple and begin the animal sacrifices all over again, and there is a line in the Amidah, or standing prayer, about bringing back animal sacrifices, but most contemporary Jews shudder at the idea.

While Christians (and Masons) insist that the Temple will be rebuilt not in physical space, but in each yearning soul, Jews do something similar in suggesting that when the Messiah comes, animal sacrifices will no longer be appropriate, because the soul will be able to express its devotion to God without the need for such intermediaries. The Rabbinical explanation seems to be that primitive people needed agricultural sacrifices because they were too crude for the subtleties of prayer, but after the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer take refuge in such sacrifices, but were forced to confront the mysteries of prayer head on.

Vayikrah (וַיִּקְרָא in Hebrew) means "and He called". Somehow, it is very Jewish to start a book with and. This Torah portion describes five types of sacrifice. The burnt offering (עֹלָה, or olah), the meal offering (מִנְחָה, or minchah), the peace offering (שֶׁ֫לֶם, or shelem), the sin offering (חַטָּאת, or chatat), and the guilt offering (אָשָׁם, or asham) A burnt offering is an animal or bird that is entirely burned. A bull is burned, or a ram if the person cannot afford a bull, or a goat if a ram proves too expensive, or a turtle-dove or pigeon, if the person cannot afford a goat. If a person cannot afford a bird, they can sacrifice a meal offering instead. High-quality wheat would be mixed with olive oil, and a scoop was placed on the fire, and the rest given to the Priests. Leviticus describes the meal offering as "a thing most holy of the offerings of the LORD made by fire." [Leviticus 2: 3], but in the Hebrew, it is described as a kodash kadashim, קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים, or a Holy of Holies among the fire offerings brought before God.

This is strange. We know that God rejected Cain's grain sacrifice in favor of Abel's animal sacrifice [Genesis 4: 3-5]. We also know that a meal offering is for someone too poor to afford a small bird to sacrifice. That a person that poor would still offer something up to God is profound, and God understands how holy such a sacrifice is.

The peace offering was given freely, without needing to have the sacrifice expiate for the sins of the sacrificer. It was often given to form a new alliance, or to testify about a friendship. The sin offering was in atonement for sin, and the guilt offering was for when the sacrificer was not sure if he had sinned or not, or had unwittingly sinned.

The description remains similar each time. For a bull, the priest would lay his hands on the bull's head, and then it would be ritually slaughtered. The bull's blood was brought into the Tabernacle, and sprinkled in front of the parokhet, or curtain veiling the Ark of the Covenant. Some of the blood was sprinkled on the incense altar, and the rest poured out at the base of the sacrificial altar. The layer of fat covering and attached to the stomachs was pulled out, along with the two kidneys and the  fat surrounding them, and the lobe on the liver near the kidneys. These are placed on the altar and burned, along with the skin of the bull, and all of its flesh, including the food still in its intestines.

To those who find such forms of worship odd, you are not alone. While there are still people today who are awestruck during a bullfight, watching the tragedy of the last tormented moments of the dying bull, I'm not sure they would keep the same emotion while watching various swathes of intestinal fat and organs being collected and burned.

In Talmudic pedagogy, the Book of Leviticus is the first section of Torah taught to young children. In the midrash on Leviticus, Rav Assi explains that children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure, and that is why they are introduced to Torah through the sacrifices. I think a more pedagogically sound explanation might be that sacrifices are deliberate and procedural, and have less interpretation than the troubling and complicated lives of the Patriarchs of Genesis.

Tsav: what isn't being said

Tuesday, March 27, 2012
In Jewish hermeneutics, remez is studying what isn't being said, rather than what is being said. It is the textual equivalent of looking at negative space in art. So, when Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law, Aaron is down at base camp making a Golden Calf for the people to idolate. But the Torah doesn't mention the Golden Calf until much later. There's really no hint in the passage where Moses receives the Torah that the people are otherwise than fully supportive of Moses.

Similarly, in this week's Torah portion, Aaron and his sons are ordained before the finished Tabernacle without giving any hint what is going to happen next week. God tells Moses to gather all the Children of Israel around the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Recall that there are 600,000 men over 20 years of age, and many more women and children gathering. Moses brings Aaron and his sons in front of the whole group, and ritually washes them, dressing Aaron in the vestments of the High Priest, and his sons in the vestments of the priests. Then he anoints the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron and his sons with anointing oil.

Moses brings forth a bull for a sin offering. Aaron and his sons lay their hands on its head, and then it is ritually slaughtered. The blood is sprinkled on the altar, and its intestinal fat, the protuberance of its liver, and its kidneys are ritually burned, and then its body is burned outside the camp Then Moses brings forth a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron and his sons lay their hands on its head, it is ritually slaughtered, and its blood is sprinkled on the altar and then it is burned whole on the altar. A second ram is slaughtered, and Moses daubs its blood on the ridge of the right ear, the thumb and big toe of Aaron and his sons. The ram's intestinal fat, protuberance of the liver and its kidneys are burned on the altar, and its blood, mixed with oil, is sprinkled on Aaron and his sons and their vestments. The meat was boiled, and Aaron and his sons were to eat the meat inside the Tent of Meeting, from which they were forbidden to leave for seven days.

Spoiler Alert:

What happens next week? On the eighth day, God consecrated the Tabernacle. More animals were brought to be sacrificed, and the Presence of God (כְבוֹד-יְהוָה in Hebrew) came down as a fire and consumed the sacrifices. Then something bad happened. On their own initiative, Aaron's two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, each grabbed a fire pan, lit incense, and to offered it to God. The fire they offered was described as "strange [or alien] fire", or אֵשׁ זָרָה. The result? "And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD." [Leviticus 10: 2].

I'm going to talk about this a lot more next week, but for now, there's no hint during the description of the ordination in this week's Torah portion that these sudden and shocking deaths are about to happen. None. What does the silence mean?

After all, the Torah narrative is full of foreshadowing. Throughout the description of Eden is a foreboding that it cannot last, and will end in grief. Joseph's triumph in Egypt sows the seeds of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. Pharaoh's stubbornness is his downfall. Why no hint that Aaron's firstborn and second-born son are doomed to die for misplaced zeal? What is the Torah saying this week by describing their ordinations as if no tragedy is about to occur?

It suggests that their deaths never should have happened, just as the Golden Calf never should have happened. God was seeking perfection on Earth, and man is imperfect. That is why Moses, enraged, smashed the first set of Tablets of the Law inscribed by the hand of God, and made new Tablets with his own hands. Nadab and Abihu were cut down by the intersection of their own imperfections with the perfection of God. Why? That will have to wait until next week.

Shemini: Ye Shall Therefore Be Holy, For I Am Holy

Friday, April 6, 2012
I gave hints of the horror of this Torah portion last week, and now it is here. Nadab and Abihu rush forth into the Tabernacle with incense pans filled with alien fire, and are struck dead by fire from God. This tragedy is all the more stunning because the Tabernacle is in the midst of being consecrated for its first use. Moses' immediate response is enigmatic: "This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified." [Leviticus 10: 3]. This line is sufficient to silence Aaron.

The rabbis who comment on Torah are of two different minds about this incident. One camp, the more mundane camp, see this as Divine punishment, and scramble to find an offense. Thus the Talmud cites Exodus 19: 22: "And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them." The next commandment listed in the Torah after this incident is "Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations." [Leviticus 10: 9], causing some rabbis to speculate that Nadab and Abihu were drunk, and are struck dead for being drunk inside the Tabernacle. There's quite a lot of speculation as to what offense the two boys committed that caused such a swift and immediate punishment, none of which strikes me as convincing.

Others regard this incident in a more esoteric way, claiming that Nadab and Abihu either consciously sacrificed themselves to God to consecrate the Tabernacle, or that God brought them too close, and they were unable to withstand the spiritual intensity of that peak moment. Rashi cites the following: " the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD: where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee. There I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory." [Exodus 29: 42-3].

My own understanding of this tragedy is that God, through Moses and Aaron, was implementing a brand-new spiritual technology, and like any new technology, its safety margins were not well understood. The Tabernacle was the devotional focal point of an entire nation of millions of people. The intensity of that focus was sufficient to incinerate a person under that lens who did not have sufficient protection. It was similar to touching the third rail during the dedication of a new subway.

Moses' comment seems to suggest that Nadab and Abihu were sanctified rather than punished, and his comment silences Aaron, who just watched his two eldest sons die. Moses summons two of Aaron's cousins to drag away the corpses of the two boys (touching a corpse would desanctify Aaron), and Moses warns Aaron and his surviving sons that if they mourned the death of the boys in the usual manner customary to Israelite custom, they would also be struck dead. Instead, the entire community of the Children of Israel are to mourn the death of the two boys for the immediate family.

In their shock, Eleazar and Ithamar burn the sacrifice that should they should have eaten, and Moses is very angry with them. Aaron responds to Moses: "Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD; and such things have befallen me: and if I had eaten the sin offering to day, should it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD? " [Leviticus 10: 19]. This is the closest that Aaron comes to complaining about or mourning the death of his sons. There is so much grief and pain in that line that it melts the heart. We get a sense of the agony with which Aaron would have internalized the metaphor, ingesting the meat of the roasted sacrificial lamb while his own lambs were roasted and sacrificed.

This is sufficient to make Moses back off: "And when Moses heard that, he was content." [Leviticus 10: 20].

The Torah portion ends with a discussion of kosher dietary laws. The animals that are regarded as unclean are mentioned, and prohibited. One who eats unclean animals makes himself "abominable" in the sight of God [Leviticus 11: 43]. The purpose of such restrictions is as follows:
For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. [Leviticus 11: 44-5].
This strikes me as very curious and unique. God wants us to be holy, as He is holy. What does that kind of holiness mean? Other religions have buildings, books, artifacts that are holy, but here, God wants people to be holy. We sanctify the holiness of God by being holy ourselves.

As Masons, we are engaged in building that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the Heavens. That building is holy, and the Deity to whom it is directed is holy, so we have to be holy in order to build it. Masons understand that the Temple of Solomon, so stately and magnificent, could not withstand the ravages of barbarous force. Freemasonry notwithstanding still survives. It survives because we are building the new Temple not in a place where fire, ram, wrecking ball, or bomb can harm it. We are building it out of our immortal souls, as living stones, which have to be holy if they are to make a holy structure.

Tazria: What Leprosy Actually Is

Monday, April 9, 2012
This week has the second double portion, of both Tazria and Metzora. Tazria is about tsara'at (צָרָעַת), which usually gets translated as leprosy. But any reading of the text will demonstrate that the disease being described is nothing like Hansen's disease. When it affects humans, it is more similar to plaque psoriasis, although perhaps not identical. But tsara'at also affects clothing and houses.

Let's step back a moment and put this in context. When I was a child, I was raised without religion by secular Jewish parents. When I was old enough to begin Hebrew school, my father offered me the choice of either spending my weekend mornings at Hebrew school, or playing pee-wee ice hockey, and I chose hockey. When my friends who attended Hebrew school began having their Bar Mitzvahs, I was invited to all of them, but I really had no context for what I was observing. The first Bar Mitzvah I went to was a friend who was in hockey with me (so he was doing both). His Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah was Tazria, this Torah portion. I was given a Chumash (a book with the five books of the Torah in Hebrew with all vowel points and cantillation marks printed, and an English translation alongside the Hebrew text, with Torah commentary at the bottom of the page), and I followed along with my friend as he recited the passage. And I was horrified. It soured me on Judaism in general for a long time to come.

I am not unique in this. A lot of Christians, and even a lot of Jews, are mortified that the Bible puts so much detail into describing a disease, which in English often gets mistranslated as leprosy, and describes it as a Divine retribution causing the sufferer to become an unclean outcast who is removed from the community and blamed for his affliction. It is hard to reconcile with our understanding of a loving God, and goes against our contemporary concept of fairness. As a result, the entire Book of Leviticus is reduced to being "the leprosy book", and many Christians (and atheists) dismiss the whole Old Testament as "leprosy and stuff".

So, how does a contemporary Jew reconcile the ugliness of Tazria with a modern theological sensibility? My rabbi really enjoys teaching this Torah portion, because it illustrates many things about the Bible that are not well understood today. One year, my rabbi brought in a dermatologist to analyze the Torah's description of the skin disease, and diagnose it based on current medical understanding. In my community, we embrace textual ugliness rather than shy away from it. We haven't even gotten to the genocides Moses leads against the Midianites (that will have to wait until the Book of Numbers), but there will be a lot more that is disturbing in the weeks to come. How do we handle that which is disturbing in the Torah?

By taking in what is said with a critical eye, not rejecting the text, but striving to understand these things are in the text. There is often much subtlety in this approach. Judaism is one of the rare cultures that has a continuous history of many millennia, and in that time, we have gone from a pastoral or agrarian society from the early Bronze Age; to an urban culture in the Iron Age; to an ancient civilization in the midst of other ancient civilizations like the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans; to a small urban minority in medieval, feudal society; to a modern religion. Jews have connections to all aspects of this historical continuum, being simultaneously ancient and modern. Being a Jew means having an identity that spans most of recorded history. So when we find our Scripture mired in antiquity, we can recognize that we traveled through that portion of space and time, and reflect upon where it fits in our long journey.

We can easily imagine that in the time of the Torah, contagious diseases were not well understood, and that sanitary conditions in the encampment of the Children of Israel were not especially good. In the desert, there was a constant shortage of water, which means that bathing was infrequent. Most people had the clothes on their back and no other clothes. The Torah tells us that one of the miracles in the desert was that the clothing of the Children of Israel never wore out, which means they were wearing the same garments for forty years of wandering in harsh elemental conditions. One can imagine that skin diseases like psoriasis broke out with some frequency.

How would an ancient and primitive people handle such outbreaks? Most likely by ascribing such afflictions to Divine retribution, and possibly mass panic. To deflect against this, the Torah describes skin diseases in a great deal of detail, and then insists that the sufferer be brought to Aaron or to the Priests for inspection. This would immediately diffuse a panic, since the Priest as mediator would protect the sufferer from the panic of the general populace. The immediate prescription is a week of quarantine. This would keep the affliction, if contagious, from affecting other people, and keep the sufferer out of the way of the crowd who might panic at the sight of such an affliction.

The Torah describes when tsara'at affects clothing (and houses in the next Torah portion). By a modern understanding, this could be mildew or dry rot. We know that these things can spread, and that they have to be treated early before they do more damage. Again, the affected garment should be brought to the priest, which is then quarantined if it proves to have tsara'at. If after seven days, the blemish has not gone away, a garment is to be burned.

All this is fairly reasonable medical treatment for a Bronze Age physician. So why is this in a holy text? The Torah is intended to be all the laws for the Children of Israel. Unlike other religions, Judaism intends to cover every aspect of life, the ugly and material as well as the sublime and spiritual. The Talmud is intended to be a whole document that covers every possible judgment that could be made, and this includes such issues as well as a myriad of other examples far stranger. When we get to the Sotah in the Book of Numbers, we are going to see things far less reconcilable to a modern sensibility, so get ready.

As I have mentioned previously, the word that gets translated as unclean might better be translated as unready. Someone overcome with skin lesions might not be ready for social intercourse, let alone the spiritual demands of temple services. Clothing eaten away by mildew might not be ready to wear.

The Talmud interprets tsara'at as the Divine punishment for harmful gossip. This metaphor of dry rot or skin lesions for the effects of gossip is effective. When we gossip maliciously, we cause real damage with our words, harming the reputations of others, and turning amicability into emnity. Many a social organization, including more than one Masonic lodge, has been destroyed by harmful gossip. The Talmud suggests that tsara'at might not even be visible, but merely the residue caused by lies and malicious rumors. There is a Hasidic tale of a woman who has spread mean-spirited rumors who, feeling some contrition, asks the rabbi how she can fix the damage she has caused. He tells her to go home and take a feather pillow, tear it open with a knife, and scatter the feathers out her bedroom window, and then to return to him. When she does this, she goes back to the rabbi and asks him what she should do next. He tells her to retrieve every feather that she scattered.

"That's impossible," she tells the rabbi. He replies that it is equally impossible to reverse the harm caused by malicious rumors.

Metzora: Why Does The Torah discuss such things?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
In this Torah portion, the priests are instructed in how to ritually cleanse one stricken with tsara'at, often mistranslated as leprosy, but when it affects people is closer to plaque psoriasis, and when it affects clothing or houses is closer to mildew or dry rot. There is instruction in how to recognize if a house is afflicted with tsara'at, and when it should be demolished to ward off the affliction. The rest of the Torah portion discusses male and female genital discharges, and how they make a person ritually impure.

For men, genital discharges, both from semen and from gonorrhea, are discussed. For women, menses, and non-menstrual bloody discharges are discussed. It is enough to have a nocturnal emission or a discharge of pre-seminal fluid to render a man in a ritually unready state, but sexual intercourse leading to a male ejaculation, or a discharge resulting from gonorrhea will also cause a man to lose his spiritual readiness. In the case of gonorrhea, he will remain unready for a week after the last discharge. Also, if a man has intercourse with a menstruating woman, he is regarded as being in the same state of ritual unreadiness as a menstruating women for a week after the intercourse. In each case, ritual bathing and sacrifices are necessary to put them back in a state of spiritual and ritual readiness.

For women, their menses renders them in a ritually unready state for a week after the last discharge. They are also rendered unready by any bloody discharge, even if outside of her menstrual cycle. After bathing and bringing turtle doves to the priests to sacrifice, they are ready again.

This stuff is crazy at first glance. What is going on here? Why is this in the Bible?

The common factor is the intermediation of the priests. When something strange and probably unhygienic happens, bring in someone who is experienced in dealing with such things (read "doctor" here), and let them examine it. Then bathe and disinfect. Not bad advice. This was a superstitious age. To bring in an objective party and to stress bathing, quarantine for contagious afflictions, and a clear, delineated way to get back to normal is a big improvement for a people used to moral panics, child sacrifices, and mad eruptions of violence.

The Torah portion ends with the reason for all the purity laws. The Tabernacle is pure, and the people who come into the Tabernacle are unleashing powerful spiritual energies, powerful enough to kill the unready. Those who come into the Tabernacle should be in a state of spiritual readiness. When you enter the tyled lodge, you should be in a similar state of spiritual readiness.

Acharei Mot: The Holiness Code

Tuesday, April 17, 2012
In this Torah portion, the observance of Yom Kippur is discussed, as well as a discussion of the sacredness of blood. Various forbidden sexual practices are discussed, including one of the only lines of Leviticus many Christian Fundamentalists read and observe. After listing a series of forbidden incestuous relationships and somewhat incestuous relationships like marrying your stepmother or marrying two women who are sisters. Other sexual sins are listed, like having sex with a menstruating woman (yeah, I know. Read the previous blog post), and committing adultery with your neighbor's wife. Then, suddenly, the rhythm of the passage falls off a cliff: "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD." [Leviticus 18: 21]. What?

There was a practice in Semitic paganism of sacrificing children to Molech, a god worshipped during that time. It was thought that an iron statue of Molech with its arms outstretched was heated with fire, and the infant was placed in the arms of Molech until it burned to death. By so doing, the person believed that they could transform their fortunes for the better. What does this have to do with the previous rules? The Egyptian aristocracy had incestuous marriages, and the Philistines had child sacrifices. Moses is commanding the Israelites to behave differently than the Egyptians and the Philistines. And it is in this context that we can put the next verse: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." [Leviticus 18: 22].

It's right there in the Bible, right? What else does the Bible refer to as תֹּועֵבָה (to'evah), or abomination?

  1. The Egyptians regarded shepherds as to'evah.
  2. Hebrew animal sacrifice in the land of Egypt was to'evah.
  3. Idolatry
  4. Remarrying a person you have divorced.
  5. Haughty eyes
  6. A lying tongue
  7. Hands that shed innocent blood
  8. A heart that devises wicked schemes
  9. Feet that are swift in running to mischief
  10. A false witness who utters lies
  11. One who spreads strife among brothers
  12. Incest
  13. Adultery
  14. Temple prostitution
  15. Money earned from prostitution
  16. Child sacrifice
  17. Transvestism
  18. Cheating in the market by using crooked weights
  19. Dishonesty
  20. Eating non-kosher food
  21. Stealing
  22. Murder
  23. Breaking covenants
  24. Usury
  25. Armed robbery
  26. Oppressing the poor and needy
This list includes behaviors we still take as taboo, like murder, child sacrifice, armed robbery, and incest. But eating rabbit makes this list, as does lying (which appears three times on the list). While transvestism was shocking years ago, nobody picketed the Milton Berle show for the occasional comic drag scene.

Maybe those who are so affronted by homosexuality should go after the other items on this list. When was the last time you saw a demonstration against usury? When was the last time that people waved Bibles in the air to protest the oppression of the poor and needy? When indeed.

Incidentally, the next line goes after bestiality, which is why some Fundamentalists equate homosexuality with bestiality. And yet they never equate homosexuality with adultery, like in the previous line. Go figure.

Kedoshim: Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself

Sunday, April 29, 2012
This Torah portion continues the Holiness code from the previous portion. This portion is mostly a list of rules, introducing two different types of capital punishment, and the punishment of cherem, or excommunication.

There are some lovely mitzvot here as well.

  1. Revere your mother and father
  2. Rest on the Sabbath day and keep it holy
  3. Not to reap all the way to the edges of a field, thereby depriving the poor and the homeless of teh possibility of gleaning from your fields, and thereby feeding themselves
  4. Do not pick your fruit trees clean, so that the poor have some fruit to eat
  5. Pay your laborers on the day they work, so that they do not go home hungry or unpaid
  6. Do not put obstacles in the way of blind people (the rabbis debate whether this is meant literally or figuratively, i.e. putting moral obstacles in the way of those without much moral foresight)
  7. Love your neighbor as you love yourself (unfortunately, some Christians think this originally came from Jesus. This is where Jesus got it.)
  8. Show deference to the elderly
  9. Love the stranger as you love yourself, for you were a stranger once in Egypt (some would interpret "stranger" as "foreigner")
  10. Treat the convert exactly the same way you would treat someone born Jewish
Two forms of capital punishment are introduced: stoning and burning. The Talmud describes stoning as a procedure where the condemned is thrown from a height of at least two stories to the street below. If they survive, a massive rock (so big that it takes at least two people to carry it) is dropped on them, crushing them. That's pretty barbaric, but not nearly as barbaric as the current version of stoning used in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, UAE, and Iran today. The contemporary version of stoning involves burying the condemned in the ground (men buried up to the waist and women up to the chest), and pelting them with rocks. The Iranian penal code forbids the use of any stones that individually could kill the condemned outright in one or two throws. It often takes a long time to die this way.

Burning, according to the Talmud is having molten lead poured down the throat.

The Talmud proscribes two other methods: decapitation and strangulation. Decapitation is with a sword, and strangulation is with two strong men on opposite sides pulling cords around the neck of the condemned until death.

In Jewish law, two witnesses had to see the crime for the death penalty to be in effect. These witnesses had to be fully educated in the law, had to be fully employed at the time of the crime, and could not be related to each other or to the accused. They had to each give a warning to the accused that the crime they were committing carried the death penalty. The accused had to acknowledge that the crime carried the death penalty and had to continue committing the crime anyway. The two witnesses could not have had a conversation afterwards about the offense, and thereby have corroborated their testimonies. The jury had to be in a strict majority, but could not be unanimous in their decision (to prevent a rigged jury). The two witnesses were required to be the executioners.

As a result, a Sanhedrin that executed more than one person in seven years (and some say seventy years) was considered to be excessively bloody.

  1. What sins carried a potential death penalty?
  2. One who gave a child to Molech
  3. One who insulted his father or mother
  4. A man who committed adultery with a married woman, and the married woman with whom he committed it
  5. A man who lay with his father’s wife, and his father wife with whom he lay
  6. A man who lay with his daughter-in-law, and his daughter-in-law with whom he lay 
  7. A man who lay with a male as one lies with a woman, and the male with whom he lay 
  8. A man who married a woman and her mother, and the woman and mother whom he married 
  9. A man who had carnal relations with a beast, and the beast with whom he had relations 
  10. A woman who approached any beast to mate with it, and the beast that she approached 
  11. One who had a ghost or a familiar spirit
Now imagine that two men were having sex. Two witnesses, who are fully employed, and well-schooled in the law witness them in flagrante delicto. Each tells the two men to stop, that what they are doing is listed in the Torah as an offense that carries with it the death penalty. Each time, both men tell each witness that they know this, but are going to continue anyway. The two witnesses never talk to each other until after the Sanhedrin meets to decide the fate of the two men, and they decide for death by stoning, although not unanimously. How often do you think that occurred?

There are other rules in this Torah portion that seem bizarre to us today:
  1. Not to interbreed different species, or sow fields with two different kinds of grain
  2. Not to wear garments from both wool and linen (unless it is the High Priest's garment and you are the High Priest)
  3. Not to eat the fruit of a newly-planted fruit tree for three years
  4. Not to trim the hair on the sides of the head
  5. Not to destroy the side-growth of the beard
  6. Not to mourn for the dead by scarifying the flesh
The penalty of excommunication is also explained, and given as punishment for the following:
  1. One who turned to ghosts or familiar spirits (but presumably did not possess them)
  2. Marriage between siblings (including half-siblings, but not step-siblings)
  3. Sexual intercourse involving a menstruating woman (both people would be excommunicated)
So, the Holiness code can be very harsh, and somewhat arbitrary by today's moral standards. With the exception of some of the ultra-Orthodox, there is nobody today who follows every jot and tittle of it. The point of it all was to ascribe towards some sense of holiness as a means of emulating God. The word kadosh in Hebrew means holy. It is where the title of the 30° in the Scottish Rite, Knight Kadosh, comes from. We are created in the image of God. The Holiness code is an early attempt to set the ground rules for holiness.

Emor: Leave Them Unto The Poor, And To The Stranger

Tuesday, May 8, 2012
In West Virginia, a man who petitions for the degrees of Masonry must have both arms and legs, and most of their fingers and toes. Why? Because in the Bible, the priests must be physically whole.
"Speak unto Aaron, saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God." [Leviticus 21: 17-21].
This restriction was present in Masonry in its earlier days, but has generally been dropped as unfair and wrong. There are a few holdouts, but the idea of rejecting an otherwise worthwhile man because he left a leg in Iraq after his humvee hit an IED is too distasteful for most Masons to contemplate.

Later in the Torah portion, God gives the rules for holidays. After Passover, when the Jews traditionally offered the temple sacrifice of the new barley (or omer), people are to count out fifty days until the next Pilgrimage Festival, Shavuot. [Leviticus 23: 15-16]. That counting has become a ritual practice, called the Counting of the Omer, and has taken on a Kabbalistic meaning.

49 is seven times seven. The seven lowest s'firot are Chesed, G'vurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malchut. The three higher s'firot are Keter, Chokhmah, and Binah, which are so rare and subtle that they are in the highest of the four worlds, Atzilut, which is beyond the comprehension of most of us. Each of the s'firot has its own Tree of Life inside it, making 100 in all. By limiting ourselves to the lower seven, we get seven times seven states of consciousness to meditate upon. On the second night of Passover, we get to reflect on the Chesed aspect of Chesed. The next night, we get to reflect on the G'vurah aspect of Chesed, and so on, until the night before Shavuot, we reflect upon the Malchut aspect of Malchut. Tonight, for example, is the Netzach aspect of Hod. Each night, there is a prayer, and then you count how many days since Passover that you have counted. A person who remembers to count the Omer each night for all 49 nights is considered to be especially blessed. If someone forgets to count the Omer on a given night, he can count it the next day before sundown, but he is not permitted to say the blessing.

This Torah portion also includes the commandment not to reap all the way to the edge of one's field, so that the poor have some harvest that they can glean for their own subsistence. [Leviticus 23: 22]. I love this idea. It balances the idea that we have to provide for the poor with the idea that a man should earn his bread. This provides the poor with work to do that will sustain them. We are not permitted to snatch up all the wealth, all the opportunity, but have to leave wealth and opportunity for those less fortunate, so that with their own labor they can provide for themselves.

Behar: Thou Shalt Relieve Him

Wednesday, May 16, 2012
This Torah portion is BeHar, or "On the Mountain", because it begins with words God speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai. To the Jews, this means that these commandments are part of the Revelation, and are thus as sacred as the Ten Commandments.

God commands the Israelites to look after their fallen brethren: "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee." [Leviticus 25: 35]. A Mason understands how a man can be his brother and yet be a stranger, as we profess to be linked together by an indissoluble chain of sincere affection. On this basis we form our friendships and establish our connections.

In the Midrash for this passage, Rabbi Pinchas, in the name of Rabbi Reuven, said: "Whoever gives a single coin to a poor person, the Holy One, Blessed be He will give that person life. For indeed, is he really giving only a single coin? No, he gives the poor person life! How can we explain this? If a loaf of bread costs 10 coins and a poor person standing in the marketplace has only nine, then if someone comes and gives a single coin so that he is able to buy a loaf of bread and, having eaten it, feels refreshed, the Holy One, Blessed be He, says to the donor, 'In your case too, when your soul presses to break loose from your body, I shall return it to you."

Bechukotai: Sugar for Sugar and Salt for Salt

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Let's imagine for a moment that God is an anthropomorphic being that lives in the sky, watches us from above from his throne in the sky, and judges us according to whether we obey the least arbitrary rule, or rebel against his yoke. This God makes rules, and these rules are ethical only because they are His rules, rather than being ethical by human standards. Imagine that He gave Moses these rules, and they all have to be obeyed; that there is no real difference between eating rabbit and murdering a human being, between incest and wearing a garment spun of wool and linen, between homosexual relations and allowing a disobedient son to live. This God of our thought exercise is going to punish us for disobedience, in essence, the only possible crime. This God is going to reward us for obeying all the rules all of the time, without error, without equivocation, and without circumspection.

In this thought exercise, we move between two poles: God's wrath, and God's material blessings upon us. We express our devotion to our Sky King by obeying all the rules, and we are showered with bounty: our crops grow superabundantly, our animals are astonishingly fecund and robust, our enemies collapse before our might, and the whole world envies us. We waver in our devotion by deviating from the rules, and our crops fail, our animals and our children die, some of whom we are forced to eat in our famine, our enemies easily mow us down, rape our women, slaughter our babies, and enslave us while our Sky King watches our agonies in indifference bordering on disgust.

That is this, the final Torah portion of Leviticus, interpreted in the most literal possible manner. Why worship this God? Out of fear of punishment, and out of hope for reward. In the scheme, the entire purpose of consciousness is mindfulness about obedience to a system that has nothing to do with each individual will. Humans do what God tells them to do, or they enter a world of hurt. God's love is absolutely conditional on Israel's compliance.

I've never liked this version of religion. No Jew likes this this version of religion, with the possible exception of the most fanatical but least mystical of the ultra-Orthodox. Oddly, many Christians think that's what Judaism is, this bargain. That being the presupposition about Judaism, of course the sane ones clamored to Jesus' revelation, if only to get out of such an awful bargain. What kind of an idiot would stay in such a dysfunctional relationship?

Now, let's try another thought exercise. Imagine that we notice that:
The everlasting universe of things Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom— Now lending splendour, where from secret springs The source of human thought its tribute brings Of waters...[Percy Shelley, Mont Blanc, opening lines]. 
 Let us imagine that we try to find these secret springs, and we notice how consciousness and nature seem both to lead to the same source. We still our inner monologue, and find a stillness behind it. We notice that the stillness is pregnant with the potentialities of things, and we notice that in that stillness is an intelligence greater than our waking minds, an emotion more powerful than the hungry ghost that chases after memes that we think is our emotional center (but isn't).

We find a flow, a direction, a purpose, a center, and everything seems to point to it, align with it, and resonate its vibrations. And we are gobsmacked when we first perceive that it loves us.

It loves us with an intensity we cannot possibly be capable of. It loves us even though we seem helpless and crude and banal and cruel and thoughtless compared to It. Does It have a personality? Compared to It, do we?

Whether or not we call this Presence God is less important than to understand that the authors of the Torah did. These authors, these primitive men, were writhing in their crudeness and antiquity, and looking up from the chaos, the violence and savagery, the heedlessness of idolatry and butchery and ignorance and superstition to see if there wasn't a Power that could pull them out of the nightmare. And what they found, they called God. What they found, they immediately lost and scrounged and searched for. They spent much more time lost than found. And yet they found. They saw. Each stood before the Presence before losing that link forever, and died in darkness, only to have others learn from their discoveries and find the Presence again and lose it.

Abraham found what he called God, and used the force of his faith to be the progenitor of the loftiest dreams seeded in spiritual condition of billions today. And yet in his madness he bound his son Isaac to sacrifice him carnally before the Presence intervened. And Jacob found what he called God and wrestled with His angel from midnight to dawn, dislocating his hip in his struggle. And Joseph found God in a prison in a world of slavery and bondage, surrounded by enemy aliens, and God freed him and set him at Pharaoh's right hand. And yet he made sport of his treacherous brothers until they groveled before him.

And Moses, the fugitive murderer who had been the apple of the old Pharaoh's eye, who was tending his sheep near Mount Sinai, carrying a lost lamb who had strayed from the flock, saw a burning bush and had the presence of mind to notice that the bush was not consumed by the flame, and he beheld God. He spoke with I WAS, AM, AND SHALL BE WHO I WAS, AM, AND SHALL BE, and armed with that consciousness, he led his people from bondage to liberation. That Presence stayed with them, as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It dwelt in the Tabernacle. It fed them food from heaven. In the Presence, their clothes did not wear out on their bodies, not for forty years of wandering. And yet, as we will see in the Book of Numbers, the Israelites retreated into their familiar crudity and petulance and idiocy. Sometimes Moses joined them in their cruelty, and sometimes Moses held firm and shared the light of God with the people.

What does it mean to walk in the Presence? What does it mean to find the Force, the Tao, the meaning and purpose of life? It means that you will plant crops in the way that will heal the land, give the maximal yield, and flow with such bounty that there will be plenty left over for the hungry, the stranger and the destitute. It means that those who oppose you as you walk in the Presence cannot possibly succeed. Those who create a bulwark against the Force will have that bulwark collapse on them. "And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people." [Leviticus 26: 12].

What happens if we join the forces of ignorance, superstition and brutality, and give up on our search for the Lost Word? If we embrace ignorance, we lose the gift of intelligence. We suffer all that ignorance brings, and make all the mistakes that burden us. We plant our crops in the wrong place and have no yield. We breed our animals at the wrong time and they grow infertile, skinny and rangy. We become bickersome and petty. With superstition, we begin to worship something less than the One. We walk for too long far away from the Presence, and loss ever having missed it. We lose all compassion and become cruel. We are so disorganized, dispirited and foolish that those who oppose us can easily scatter us, enslave us and destroy us. "And I will set my face against you, and ye shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and ye shall flee when none pursueth you." [Leviticus 26: 17].

Eventually, our decisions will harm our children. We will allow our world to become polluted, and our children to sicken in a polluted world. We will exploit the wealth of the next seven generations, seizing and consuming it ourselves, robbing our children of their future livelihoods, trying to feed the hungry ghosts inside us that are never, ever satisfied. As we hunger for the Presence we have forsaken, and as long as we are too proud to return to the Source, we continue the devastation of our own crazy, soulless stupidity. The Presence, the Force itself, speaks:

And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins. And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.
And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.
And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours.
And I will bring the land into desolation: and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it.
And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste.

Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate, and ye be in your enemies' land; even then shall the land rest, and enjoy her sabbaths.
As long as it lieth desolate it shall rest; because it did not rest in your sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it.
And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.
And they shall fall one upon another, as it were before a sword, when none pursueth: and ye shall have no power to stand before your enemies.
And ye shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up.
And they that are left of you shall pine away in their iniquity in your enemies' lands; and also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away with them.

If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me;
And that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity:
Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land.
The land also shall be left of them, and shall enjoy her sabbaths, while she lieth desolate without them: and they shall accept of the punishment of their iniquity: because, even because they despised my judgments, and because their soul abhorred my statutes.
And yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them: for I am the LORD their God.
But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the heathen, that I might be their God: I am the LORD. [Leviticus 26: 27-45].
Forget the Sky King metaphor for a moment. This is what it is like to live outside of the Tao. Imagine that the Presence is addressing us directly. What happens if we pervert nature in our greed and boredom? What happens if we feed the hungry ghosts instead of noticing, as Jacob did, that "Surely the LORD is in this place"? [Genesis 28: 16]. As we fight the flow of all purpose, we find that the Universe itself resists us.  Nature will reclaim what we have spoiled. Devastation and suffering will lead us to look for the Lost Word again, to again seek the Presence.

This is the deterioration that led to the destruction of the Temple, the Exile, the scattering and the Lost Tribes. And the passage back, the return, the teshuvah, the Passing of the Veils, the Crossing of the River in the 15th Degree, is the work we have to do to rebuild what we have lost.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק


Bamidbar: Counting the Twelve Tribes

Tuesday, May 22, 2012
The Book of Numbers is thus called because it begins and ends with a census. God commands Moses to count the members of the Twelve Tribes after the construction of the Tabernacle, and again before crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. In this first census, there is a separate census for the Levites, who are technically no longer a tribe. Instead, the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are each given a tribe to make a dozen.

Those of you in the Royal Arch will note how much the symbolism of the Twelve Tribes appears in Masonry. Much of the symbolism comes from Jacob's deathbed blessings to his sons (and two of his grandsons), and the rest comes from a description of their banners and where they were placed around the Tabernacle, from this Torah portion. These banners are part of the layout of a Royal Arch Chapter (like the tracing board above). In the East is the banner of Judah [Numbers 2: 3], in the West is the banner of Ephraim [Numbers 2: 18], in the South is the banner of Reuben [Numbers 2: 10], and in the North is the banner of Dan [Numbers 2: 25]. The Twelve Tribes also correlate to the twelve signs of the Zodiac in Astrology, with the four cardinal points in the Encampment representing the four Fixed Signs of the Zodiac.

About Judah, Jacob says, "Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk." [Genesis 49: 8-12].

Jacob gave the firstborn blessing to Ephraim over Manasseh, even though Manasseh was the older son of Joseph and Ephraim the younger. Just as Jacob usurped the primogeniture from Esau, he also ensured that the younger would be blessed over the older two generations later.

About Reuben, Jacob says, "Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch." [Genesis 49: 3-4].

About Dan, Jacob says, "Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward." [Genesis 49: 16-17].

Judah's banner is that of a Lion, from Jacob's prophecy. Albert Mackey insisted, from the Talmud, that it should be white in color, and borne by the Royal Arch Captain. Ephraim's banner is that of an Ox. Mackey insisted that it be scarlet in color, and borne by the Master of the Third Veil. Reuben's banner is that of a Man, and Mackey insisted that it be purple in color, and borne by the Master of the Second Veil. Dan's banner is that of an Eagle, and Mackey insisted that it be blue in color, and borne by the Master of the First Veil. The color pattern will make sense to any Royal Arch Mason who has Passed the Veils.

The animals come from the Vision of Ezekiel, and are reiterated in the Book of Revelations, and are as symbols of the Four Gospels: Matthew is a Man, Mark is a Lion, Luke is an Ox, and John is an Eagle. In an English Holy Royal Arch Chapter, there are banners for all Twelve Tribes, but in the American Rite, there are just the four. They also represent the four Fixed Signs of the Zodiac. The Lion is Leo, the Ox is Taurus, the Man is Aquarius, and the Eagle is Scorpio, representing Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. Scorpio, one might think, is represented by a Scorpion, but this sign is also often represented by a fish, a serpent, or an eagle. Why is the eagle the symbol of water? Because it is Scorpio, which is a water sign. Why is Aquarius an air sign? Because it is a symbol of the man who brings water, and not the water itself. The man is rational, and air is the element of rational thought.

Naso: Sotah and Nazir

Friday, June 1, 2012
In this Torah portion, we deal with two very strange procedures. The first is sotah, a trial by ordeal for a woman accused by her husband of adultery, and the second is the nazir, or the closest thing that Judaism has to an ascetic tradition. Both of these practices are deprecated, and nobody does either of them today, but they are sufficiently weird that they deserve comment. Indeed, the Talmud devotes a tractate to each.

Sotah is a ritual to determine if a woman accused by her husband of adultery is innocent. If a husband suspects his wife of adultery, and there is not enough evidence to make a positive case (remember that adultery was a capital crime), he can bring his wife to a priest, or bring her before the entrance to the Tabernacle, or before one of the gates of the Temple, and offer a grain offering as a sacrifice. Water would be taken from the sacred washstand, put in a clay vessel and mixed with earth from the Tabernacle floor, and used to make a "bitter" potion. The woman's hair was uncovered (and Josephus reports that she was stripped to the waist), and she was made to offer an oath:
"And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh [genitals] to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen." [Numbers 5: 19-22].
The priest then writes down the oath on parchment, and then washes away the ink with the bitter water. The woman then is made to drink the bitter water, and he offers the grain sacrifice. The Torah predicts that if the woman is guilty, then her belly will distend and her genitals will swell up and rupture, which is fairly ghastly. However, if she is innocent, she will not be harmed, and instead will become pregnant.

This is highly peculiar. Trial by ordeal appears nowhere else in the Bible. Even if the woman is innocent, she would be profoundly humiliated by this ordeal. Why is this in the Bible?

Maybe because, unlike most ordeals, the woman is usually proven innocent by her trial. Most women who drink dirty water don't have their genitals explode. Her husband, by subjecting her to such an embarrassment, looks like an idiot for putting her through this. How was adultery often handled in the Ancient World (and sometimes even today)? Through a revenge killing. Instead of a revenge killing, Jewish law demands that the woman undergo the sotah instead. An intermediary, in the form of the priest, handles the situation rather than her husband. He runs the sotah, and keeps her from undergoing anything more harmful than drinking bitter water and exposing her hair (or chest if Josephus is correct). Considering that the other option is revenge killing, this seems like a saner alternative.

The nazir, or nazirite, is a person who undertakes a vow to

  • Abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, intoxicating liquors and vinegar distilled from such, and refrain from eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes.
  • Refrain from cutting the hair on one's head; but to allow the locks of the head's hair to grow.
  • Not to become impure by corpses or graves, even those of family members.
Why? Nobody really knows. In the vow, the nazirite would decide for how long to be a nazirite. After the period is over, the person takes a ritual bath, makes a series of sacrifices, and then shave their head and place their hair in the fire with their burnt offering. The nazirite is considered holy unto God (the same phrase as on the headband of the High Priest), and yet must offer a sin offering upon the termination of their nazir period.

Today, the Temple does not exist, and therefore all modern nazirites implicitly take a permanent vow. In the Book of Judges, Sampson's mother makes a vow that her baby will be a nazirite, and Samson is a nazirite for life, but the description of his arrangement differs from that in the Torah. Therefore, the Talmud describes the nazir-like-Samson as another alternative, where he does not need to avoid a dead body. That Samson drinks wine with Delilah and cuts his hair shows his moral shortcomings as an oath-breaker.

The Talmud is divided on whether the vow of a nazirite is good or evil. Maimonides believed that it was immoderate to be a nazirite, while Nachmanides regarded the vow as very holy, and felt that a nazirite should ideally make a whole-life vow. Jews in general eschew asceticism. The Jewish religion, in its Rabbinic form, is a householder religion, and holding a job and supporting a family are important portions of the Jewish spiritual path. Similarly, Freemasonry seems to be a householder path. The Mason is active in the community, in business, and with his family, while still adhering to his Masonic obligations.

Contemporary Rastafarians take a similar vow to the vow of the nazirite. The prophet Samuel was also a nazirite, again because his mother Hannah made the vow before his birth because she was barren.

Oh, and by the way, this Torah portion also contains the Priestly Blessing (or Priestly Benediction). I blogged about this previously. The Masons have the Masonic Benediction:
May the Blessings of Heaven rest upon us and all regular Masons. May Brotherly Love prevail, and every moral and social virtue cement us. Amen.
I've traced the Masonic Benediction back at least as far as Preston's Illustrations of Masonry, but I would suspect it is much older still. 

Behaalotecha: would God that all the Lord's people were prophets

Tuesday, June 5, 2012
In the Torah, the final verses from the tenth chapter of the Book of Numbers [Numbers 10: 35-36] are surrounded by backward versions of the letter nun: ׆
Numbers 10:35 is recited in a synagogue whenever the Torah scrolls are taken from the Ark. Nobody knows why the backward nuns appear. They also appear in Psalm 107. The Rabbis of the Talmud believed that the backward letters denoted that the text was in the wrong sequence in the Torah, and there are lots of debates as to where the text should actually go. This is one of the weird things about the Torah as it is written by scribes, as opposed to the text in a printed book.

In the next chapter, the people complain about having to eat nothing but manna. Moses hears the people weeping in their tents, and he asks God for help, saying, "I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me." [Numbers 11: 14].

God responds by commanding Moses to gather the seventy elders of the tribes, the seventy wisest men among the people, and having them convene around the Tent of Meeting. God descended, and allowed some of His essence to fill the tent, much like the Shekhinah dwelling in the Tent of Meeting. The holy essence of God permeated these men, and they were given the gift of prophecy. Two men remained in the camp but were also given the gift of prophecy. Their names were Eldad and Medad. The two men immediately began to prophesy, and this alarmed the people, who went to Moses, but found Joshua, son of Nun, instead, who pleaded with Moses to stop the men from prophesying. "And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" [Numbers 11: 29].

The Talmud suggests that there were six wise men from each of the Twelve Tribes, making 72 in all. But only 70 met at the Tent of Meeting. That leaves the two men, Eldad and Medad, who failed to arrive, but gained the gift of prophecy anyway.

The Kabbalists are fascinated with this passage, which they claim is imbued with hints about how normal people can gain the gift of prophecy, and that God wants people to be prophets. Indeed, this is the justification for seeking out esoteric knowledge in general; the justification being that it pleases God to have His children seek him out.

Shlach: A Ribband of Blue

Thursday, June 14, 2012
In this Torah portion, Moses sends out twelve scouts (one from each tribe) to explore the Promised Land and make their report back to the Children of Israel. They are gone from the camp for 40 days, and when they return, their report is divided. Ten scouts report that the land is filled with giants who would be unconquerable, but Joshua and Caleb report that, with God's help, they could easily be defeated. The people listen to the ten scouts and panic, and lament, and wish aloud that they had never left Egypt.

God offers to Moses to kill all the Children of Israel and give Moses a better people to lead, but Moses asks God to reconsider. If the Children of Israel die in the wilderness, then the other peoples will see it as God's failure, not the failure of the Israelites. So God reluctantly spares their lives. It is notable that previously Abraham had argued with God when God insisted on killing outright whole peoples, but Moses actually managed to spare whole peoples from God's wrath.

Towards the end of the Torah portion is an interesting mitzvah that is used as the third paragraph of the Sh'ma prayer, which Jews recite morning and night every day. God commands the Israelites to wear tassels on the corners of their garments, and to twist into the tassels a single thread of blue wool, dyed with the blue dye called תכלת, or tekhelet. This dye came from an animal called the חילזון, or khilazon. This animal was most likely a sea snail. The Talmud explains that the animal lived in the Mediterranean Sea, and was shaped somewhat like a fish with a shell, and that its blood was the dye. It only surfaced every seventy years, so this dye was very rare and expensive. After the Romans expelled the Jews from Palestine, the knowledge of how to make tekhelet was lost. The Talmud also warns that plant indigo is the same color, but that using plant dies instead of genuine tekhelet is not kosher. The Radziner Rebbe in the 19th century had a vision that the Messiah visited him and told him that he had to discover how to make tekhelet in order for the Messiah to come. He moved to Palestine and spent decades researching the dye, and finally devised a dye prepared from cuttlefish that looks indigo blue. Another rabbi at the time, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, analyzed the cuttlefish dye, and found that it was Prussian Blue, which can be synthesized by other sources, and therefore concluded that the cuttlefish was not the chilazon.

The famous murex snail of antiquity, which was the source of the Roman purple dye, was Rabbi Herzog's choice for techelet, even though the dye from the murex snail is purple instead of blue. This purple dye was incredibly expensive and rare, and was the only source of purple dye in antiquity, which is why only Roman emperors (and later kings) were allowed to wear it. Incidentally, the first synthetic purple dye was derived from coal-tar derivatives, and was called "mauve". The first garment dyed mauve was given as a gift to Queen Victoria, who wore it publicly as a testament to British industry.

In the 1980s, a scientist in Israel exposed murex dye to sunlight, and found that the sun broke down the chemicals in the dye and turned the purple dye indigo blue. It is currently thought that this is the true techelet. I own a prayer shawl with fringes, with one thread dyed using this dye. Ashkenazi Jews generally don't wear blue threads in their fringes, and Sephardic Jews often do, using this or the cuttlefish dye.

As a memento to the lost dye, Ashkenazi Jews wore prayer shawls with a blue stripe in them, and this blue stripe is also on the top and bottom of the flag of Israel. This blue is the reason why Craft Lodges in Freemasonry are called "Blue Lodges", and the royal murex dye is why Grand Lodge officers wear purple.

Korach: Bloomed Blossoms, and Yielded Almonds

Tuesday, June 19, 2012
In this Torah portion, Korach conspires to rebel against Moses and Aaron, and his conspiracy fails, and he is destroyed along with his conspirators. Keen to show the tribes of Israel that the Tribe of Levi has religious authority over the other tribes, God tells Moses to ask the heads of the tribes to take their rods (מַּטֹּת, or matot) and engrave their names on them (or some say the names of their tribes). Interestingly, Matot will be the name of a future Torah portion in Numbers. Just as the English word staff has a double meaning of both a rod, and a group of employees, so in Hebrew, matot can also refer to a group of subordinates as well as a wooden staff.

God told Moses to gather the rods, along with Aaron's rod, and to place them inside the Tabernacle, before the Ark. Recall that in Exodus, Aaron demonstrated before the priests of Egypt that he could cast his rod on the ground, and have it turn into a serpent. This is the same rod. God tells Moses that the rod of the man whom God would choose would blossom inside the Tabernacle, and by this God would choose the proper leader of the tribes.

The next day, Moses went to get the rods from inside the tent. Aaron's rod had sprouted leaves, and now blossoms and almonds were ripening upon it. The leaders of the other tribes were terrified by this demonstration, and God told Moses to put Aaron's rod before the Ark as a testament that Aaron's authority came from Divine right.

The symbol of the almond appears elsewhere in the Bible, and in Freemasonry as well. In Ecclesiastes 12:5, the candidate is told that "Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets." The almond tree shall flourish because its blossoms are white, and so a metaphor for old age, as white hair growing on the head of an older person.

Of course, Aaron's rod is familiar to every Royal Arch Mason as well, for reasons improper to divulge.

Chukat: A Serpent Of Brass

Monday, June 25, 2012
I have commented previously on the difference between chukim, mishpatim, and zachorim. This Torah portion is named after the Commandment of the Red Heifer, the strangest mitzvah in the Torah. There is a midrash that after Solomon was given the gift of wisdom by God, he was asked if he now understood all the mitzvot in the Torah. He replied that he understood them all, with the exception of the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.

This is what to do to purify someone who has been exposed to a human corpse. Find a maiden cow under two years of age that is covered in red hairs. If as many as two hairs are not red, the cow is invalid. The cow must never have been yoked, and must be free of blemishes. The cow is to be ritually slaughtered, and its carcass burned with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson yarn (from a certain rare worm). The ashes are to be collected and used for a special preparation. The priest who slaughtered the cow, and the priest who burned the cow would be required to wash their garments, bathe in a mikveh, and be ritually unclean until that evening.. A different, ritually pure priest would collect the ashes.

If someone were exposed to a human corpse, they would become ritually unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh day, they would be sprinkled with water with these ashes mixed in, and the priest who sprinkled them would have to wash his garments, bathe in a mikveh and be ritually unclean until that evening. After the second treatment on the seventh day, the person would be ritually clean again. Anyone exposed to a corpse who did not undergo this treatment was to be excommunicated.

In the time of the Tabernacle, ritual slaughter could only take place in the courtyard of the Tabernacle. After the erection of the Temple, ritual slaughter could only take place in the courtyard of the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, no more ritual slaughter could ever take place. The Talmud tells us that when Moses and Aaron heard this commandment, a red heifer appeared ready for them to use for this ritual. The rabbis of the Talmud are divided on how many red heifers there have been, but mostly likely, the number is in the single digits. A vial of the red heifer's ashes survived the destruction of the Temple, but ran out during Talmudic times. There are lots of legends about the various red heifers. There is a legend that when Solomon was ready to consecrate the Temple, a new red heifer appeared. Similarly, the scribe Ezra found a red heifer just before Zerubbabel was ready to consecrate the Second Temple.

Today, there are Christian Fundamentalists who are trying to grow a perfect red heifer to give to the Jews in Israel so that they can consecrate the not-yet-built Third Temple. As this would involve dislodging the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, this might be met with some resistance.

It goes without saying that all Jews who have ever seen a dead body, or have ever been in a room that has ever previously contained a dead body, are ritually unclean forever and should be excommunicated seven days after such exposure. And yet they are not, since the remedy is no longer available to us. Even still, all cohens (descendents of Aaron) are advised by the Orthodoxy not to attend funerals, unless it is the funeral of an immediate relative. I have yet to hear a Biblical literalist remark upon this.

The Torah tells us how to prepare because Miriam dies right after this explanation appears, and Aaron dies later in the passage.

The Children of Israel stop in the Desert of Tzin, and Miriam dies there. The people are thirsty, and complain about having no water. God tells Moses to take haMatteh, or "the staff" (interpreted to be Aaron's Rod) and to command a certain rock (or some say, a cliff) to give forth water for the people. Instead, Moses strikes the rock, twice, and it gushes forth abundantly with water. This angers God, who tells Moses that if he had sufficient faith, he would have spoken to the rock rather than have struck it, twice. By striking the rock, he failed to sanctify God before the people, and as a punishment, Moses is now barred from entering the Promised Land, and will die on the opposite side of the Jordan river, before the Children of Israel enter the land.

Pretty much everyone who reads and thinks about Torah is uncomfortable with this judgment, if taken literally. Is the difference between talking to a rock and hitting a rock with a stick so significant that it should condemn a righteous man to a death that severs him from the fulfillment of his goals and dreams? Especially coming immediately after the death of a sister who took care of him when he was a baby? Even in the midst of an angry mob throwing off his concentration?

The interpretation I am most comfortable with is that leaders cannot stay leaders forever. They have to pass their mantles of leadership to another generation. Moses and Aaron and Miriam have clearly lost control of the mob, who seem to break out in a new rebellion and riot with every new Torah portion. It is time for Eleazar to replace Aaron (hence Eleazar is commanded to slaughter the red heifer, not Aaron), and for Joshua to replace Moses. Those condemned by God to die in the desert have given up hope, and have only bitterness, but their children have a future ahead of them in the land overflowing with milk and honey.

In this age where Masonic membership numbers are much less than they were fifty years ago, we are all aware of lodges run by men who were Past Masters decades ago, who continue to cling to power long after the zenith of their accomplishments. Some are willing to offer the Eastern Chair to a willing subordinate, as long as everyone understands where the real power is coming from. This is a perversion of what Masonry intends to teach us about leadership. The last lesson a Worshipful Master receives is how to vacate his office, content to sit on the sidelines and to let others rule after him. Some Masters never learn that lesson, and their lodges suffer. Others never get the option to learn that lesson, as their lodges remain in leadership crises before, during, and after they are in the East.

After being rebuffed by the Edomites when trying to pass through their country on their way to the Promised Land, they stop at Mt. Hor. Aaron's priestly robes are removed from his body and given to Eleazar, the new High Priest. Then Aaron dies atop the mountain. The people mourned the death of Aaron for thirty days.

Moving along the coast, alongside the nation of Edom, the people began to grumble again, and God sent venomous serpents to bite them, killing many of them. The people begged Moses to save them from the serpents, and God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of brass (or copper), and to place it on a banner. Whoever had been bitten by the serpents couldlook at the brazen serpent, and would not be killed by the venom. This motif of the brazen serpent raised on the pole appears in the Scottish Rite, in the Lodge of Perfection degrees, in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction.

The Brazen Serpent (נחושתן, or nechustan), was part of the Temple until it was destroyed by King Hezekiah, who regarded it as idolatrous.

The Children of Israel encounter different nations in their journey, and they send emissaries to ask permission to pass through these territories, promising not to forage, scrounge, pillage or even so much as drink any water from their wells. The first time, they are met at the borders by an army, refusing them passage, and they turn away. The second time, they are met at the borders by an army, and they curse the cities of those people. The third time, at Bashan, they are attacked, and fight back, and kill everybody in Bashan, including their giant king, Og, and occupy Bashan and its cities. After this, they move on to the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho, their last encampment before taking the Promised Land.

Balak: How Goodly Are Thy Tents, O Jacob!

Thursday, July 5, 2012
This Torah portion is intentionally humorous. The Bible can be funny (like the story of Jonah), and this story humorously depicts the confusion of the Moabites at Israel's approach. After a sequence of nations obstructing Israel's journey to the Promised Land, the Israelites finally fight back when the Amorites attack them, utterly defeating the Amorites and slaying them. Next along their journey, the Moabites realize that Israel will mow them down if they are not stopped. They hire a famous sorcerer, Balaam, to curse the Israelites, and the story of Balaam and his adventures is a funny story, complete with a talking donkey.

Balak, the Moabite leader, holds a parley with the Midianites and the Amalekites, and other enemies of Israel, and they decide to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam lives on the far side of the Euphrates, and so Balak sends a contingent out to visit Balaam and to persuade him to come with them to curse Israel. Balaam invites the party to spend the night, and tells them that he will sleep on it, deciding what we will do in the morning, after consulting with God. God tells Balaam not to curse the Israelites, and in the morning, Balaam sends them away. Balak decides to send a much bigger and more impressive embassy to Balaam, who informs the dignitaries that he can only do as God permits. But after sleeping on it again, God tells Balaam to accept their invitation and go with them.

We now encounter a theological conundrum as God appears to change His mind. If God dwells in Eternity, how then can this happen? If God permits Balaam to journey with the embassy back to Moab, why then does he send an angel to oppose his journey? The rabbis of the Talmud suggest that it is all in Balaam's attitude. They interpret Balaam as one who gets all of his sorcerous powers from God and yet yearns to use them wickedly. When God allows Balaam to follow the dignitaries back to Moab, Balaam (according to the rabbis) was thrilled, thinking he would get the chance to destroy the Israelites with his sorcery. In order to check his misaligned enthusiasm, God sent an angel to interfere with Balaam's journey.

Balaam rises early in the morning, and saddles his donkey, and rides upon the donkey while two male servants accompany him on foot. The rabbis note that Balaam had servants, and yet he saddled his own donkey. This shows his eagerness to begin his journey (the rabbis also imply that Balaam had a sexual relationship with the donkey, but that might just be too gross to contemplate). In order to check that enthusiasm, God places an angel with a sword in the middle of the road. The angel is invisible to the men, but the donkey sees it, and she turns off the road to avoid the angel. Balaam beat the donkey to try to get her back onto the road.

Later, they are travelling through a narrow path between two fenced-off vineyards, the angel brandishes a sword and blocks their way. In avoiding the angel, the donkey crushes Balaam's foot against the fence. Balaam, enraged, beats the donkey even harder. Finally, the passage narrows, and the angel blocks the path a third time. In resignation, the donkey lies down before the angel. Balaam loses his temper, beating the donkey with a stick.

The donkey speaks to Balaam, and asks him: "What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?" [Numbers 22: 28]. Balaam replies that he feels mocked by the donkey, and that if he had a sword, he would kill the donkey. The donkey appeals to Balaam: "Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?" [Numbers 22: 30]. Once Balaam acknowledges the donkey's loyalty, God opens Balaam's eyes, and gives him the power to see the angel with the sword.

As Balaam lies prostrate before the angel, the angel tells him: "Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive." [Numbers 22: 32-33].

Balaam offers to go home and abandon his journey, but the angel tells Balaam to continue, but to only say the words that God provides for him to say.

The rabbis of the Talmud have a lot of problems with this story. God speaks to Balaam, and yet the rabbis understood that they themselves lived in a post-prophetic era where God no longer spoke to people. Balaam is a gentile, and a sorcerer, and a wicked man by their reckoning.Why, then, would God speak to this person (and not to them)? Also, the rabbis were rational enough to be uncomfortable with fantastic things like talking animals. They interpret the donkey's speech as God speaking out of the donkey's mouth. Balaam is having a Divine vision, and in the vision, the donkey speaks (as an animal might talk in a dream).

The Talmud mentions the mouth of Balaam's donkey as one of the things created last, at twilight on the Sixth Day of Creation. [Pirkei Avot 5: 6].

I'm very fond of Balaam's donkey. She's a lot more human than anyone else in this story.She's funny and sweet and very endearing. Jewish feminists rightly point out that there are few females in the Bible who have speaking roles. It is hardly flattering that one of the great female characters in the Bible isn't even human, but a donkey.

When the company reaches Moab, Balak and a host of dignitaries come out to greet Balaam. Three times, Balak sets up a sacrifice of seven altars, with a bull and a ram sacrificed on each altar, and each time, Balaam fails to curse Israel. The last time, Balaam in an ecstatic trance, recites the following:
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee. [Numbers 24: 5-9].
The first line of this is recited in the Jewish liturgy whenever one enters a synagogue.

Balak, furious, dismisses Balaam, who delivers the following parting shot:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city. And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever. And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock. Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive. And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this! And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever. [Numbers 24: 17-24].
The passage says that Balaam went home, and yet, the Book of Numbers later reports that the "sin of Peor" (which I will deal with next week, even though it starts in this Torah portion) was designed by Balaam, and later, in the Book of Joshua, it is reported that Balaam was killed by the Israelites.

Pinchas: I Give Unto Him My Covenant of Peace

Monday, July 9, 2012
This Torah portion continues the story of the sin of Baal-Peor. Unable to curse the Israelites, the Midianites send their women to the stream of Shittim (acacia) to seduce the Israelites, and to get them to worship Baal-Peor, the Midianite god. The Israelites succumb, and this angers God, who sends forth a plague to punish the idolaters, and commands the people to publicly impale the offenders. The leaders of the Israelite tribes huddled before the Tent of Meeting, hesitant to execute the offenders, when Zimri, son of Salu ran into the tent with a Midianite woman, Cozbi. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, followed the couple into the Inner Sanctum with a spear, and impales them, in flagrante delicto, thus ending the plague, which had killed 24,000 people.

According to the Talmud, the couple are speared through their embracing genitals [Sanhedrin, 81-82]. This gruesome image shows something of the graphic imagination of the authors of the Talmud. I have to admit, gentle reader, that I am at a loss as to what such a spearing would symbolize.

Judaism struggles with how it treats exogamy. Moses married a Midianite woman, and yet Esau is condemned for not marrying within the tribe. It is clear that endogamy was at one time defined patrilineally, and was later, in Talmudic times, changed to matrilineal progression, which lasts today. The Bible often condemns Israelites for marrying foreign (especially Canaanite and Philistine) women, and yet David and Solomon are not condemned for doing so, until Solomon begins to worship his wives' gods. Therefore, it appears that it is apostasy and not exogamy that is being condemned here.

I have to admit that I am uncomfortable with how strictly Jews proscribe exogamy. Ashkenazi Jews are prone to all kinds of genetic disorders because Ashkenazi communities were tiny for so long, forcing a very limited gene pool, and causing some pretty horrible disorders, like Tay-Sachs. It would be insensitive to interpret such maladies as God telling us to lighten up about exogamy, but all the same, maybe the strictures against exogamy are not serving us well in the modern world. In Israel, there is far less intercourse between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrachim (let alone Ethiopian, Indian, or Chinese Jews) than there should be. Even within the Jewish world, there is not the gene mixture that a limited gene pool needs so much.

In various pagan Semitic religions, sex is offered as a sacrament. The Bible describes the קדשה or קדש (qedesha or qedesh, male or female sacred prostitute) who offers themselves sexually for temple worship. This sort of divine sexuality was associated with the cult of Asherah, whom some speculate was a feminine consort of the male God El of the Bible for some Semitic people. The Bible mentions the Asherah pole (a phallus erected for worship) being forbidden. To modern sensibilities, it might seem odd that Temple animal sacrifice was sacred to the Israelites, but Temple sexual sacraments was forbidden, since one ends lives whereas the other generates life. Some of the ideas and practices of Semitic paganism have enjoyed a resurgence today. To modern Jewish sensibilities, the use of child sacrifice in ancient pagan worship was what made the whole religious system intolerable, but to the ancient Jews, all of these pagan practices were loathsome, since they felt that such practices worshiped something that was less than Divine.

In any case, the Israelites sought to distinguish their religious practices from those outside of their tribes, and one major delineating factor for them was proscribing the use of public sexual sacraments. However, sex within monogamous marriage is celebrated within Judaism, and interestingly, sex is always a mitzvah, even if it ventures into forbidden practices. Thus, in Orthodox interpretation, a child born out of wedlock is a mitzvah, and the sex that created that child is a mitzvah, even when the act of adulterous sex is a sin. Sex on the Sabbath is particularly sacred, since the Shekhinah is closer to us during the Sabbath, and thus the sex that we have is imitative of the sacred union of the Shekhinah with the rest of Divinity.

The rabbis of the Talmud were uncomfortable with how gruesome Pinchas' act was, and how the Torah seems to laud it uncritically, so they looked for ways to show that the violence of the double homicide was not to be emulated. Consider the passage:
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel. [Numbers 25: 10-13].
This "covenant of peace" could be considered a palliative for Pinchas' violent impulsiveness. By making of his line an everlasting priesthood, God is yoking Pinchas and his descendants to the strongest religious structure they could possibly be given, keeping them from acting upon their violent urges. So what seems at first like a reward is actually a harsh restriction.

The Torah portion also contains the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad (Banot Tzelafchad), whose father died "of his own sin" in the desert [Numbers 27: 3], and who had no brothers. By the patrilineal rules of inheritance, they could not inherit their father's estate. They appealed to Moses, who could not judge the case for himself, but appealed to God, who allowed them to inherit their father's property. These women had a righteous plea, challenged the status quo, and won their appeal to God. In the 1970s, there was a Jewish feminist group called Banot Tzelafchad, named after these women from the Bible. As if to reward them for their righteousness, the bible names them: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.

This portion also determines that Joshua, son of Nun, will be Moses' successor when he dies, which will be very soon. Moses lays his hands upon Joshua before all the people.

Matot: have ye saved all the women alive?

Monday, July 16, 2012
This is another week with a double Torah portion. This portion has three major themes. The first is the sanctity of vows. Men and divorced or widowed women are to keep their oaths and obligations. Wives and dependent daughters, if they make vows, can have those vows vetoed by the man responsible for them. This is problematic for a modern, egalitarian sensibility, but is pretty standard for a heavily patriarchal culture.

This veto is a double-edged sword, in a sense. God is merciless to the man who makes an oath he cannot honor, but shows some mercy to the woman who makes an oath she cannot fulfill. This mercy is entrusted to her patriarch, who can decide for her that she cannot be obligated to carry out her obligation, provided he objects within a day of her oath. In one sense, it is profoundly insulting to the woman's autonomy that a patriarchal figure in her life has veto power over her agreements. However, much of Jewish law is how to get rid of an obligation that one has made but cannot fulfill, and Jewish law is much kinder to women than to men who fail to meet their obligations.

The second theme is Moses' vengeance on Midian for the heresy of Baal-Peor. Recall that the Israelites have been journeying through the wilderness, and on the plains of Moab are nearly done with their journeys. They have been seeking passage to Canaan, and finding various nations have opposed them in their attempt to enter the land. First, the Israelites responded by avoiding their opponents, then when later opponents attacked them, they cursed their cities and avoided them, still later, when their opponents attacked them, they defended themselves and took the battle to their opponents, killing them. Finally, with Midian, the Israelites engage in a war of extermination.

God tells Moses that he is to organize a surprise attack on Midian, and that afterwards, Moses will die, and cede leadership to Joshua. Moses gathers a force of 1000 men from each tribe, and these shock troops, led by Pinchas ben Eleazar the priest, mount a surprise attack and slaughter every adult male in Midian, and take the women, children and livestock captive, along with all their valuables and possessions. They single out and execute by sword the five kings of Midian, along with Balaam the sorcerer (although presumably his donkey was spared). All of the buildings in Midian are set on fire.

Moses is furious. He asks the generals and captains: "Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." [Numbers 31: 15-18].

If the savagery of Moses drives you to contemplate atheism, you would not be the first, nor certainly the last, to do so. Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, wrote the following about this passage:
Besides, the character of Moses, as stated in the Bible, is the most horrid that can be imagined. If those accounts be true, he was the wretch that first began and carried on wars on the score or on the pretence of religion; and under that mask, or that infatuation, committed the most unexampled atrocities that are to be found in the history of any nation, of which I will state only one instance.
When the Jewish army returned from one of their plundering and murdering excursions, the account goes on as follows: Numbers, chap. xxxi., ver. 13:
"And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp; and Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle; and Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the Council of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him; but all the women-children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."
Among the detestable villains that in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man, it is impossible to find a greater than Moses, if this account be true. Here is an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters. Let any mother put herself in the situation of those mothers; one child murdered, another destined to violation, and herself in the hands of an executioner; let any daughter put herself in the situation of those daughters, destined as a prey to the murderers of a mother and a brother, and what will be their feelings? It is in vain that we attempt to impose upon nature, for nature will have her course, and the religion that tortures all her social ties is a false religion.
After this detestable order, follows an account of the plunder taken, and the manner of dividing it; and here it is that the profaneness of priestly hypocrisy increases the catalogue of crimes. Ver. 37 to 40, "And the lord's tribute of sheep was six hundred and three score and fifteen; and the beeves were thirty and six thousand, of which the Lord's tribute was three score and twelve; and the asses were thirty thousand and five hundred, of which the Lord's tribute was three score and one; and the persons were sixteen thousand, of which the Lord's tribute was thirty and two persons." In short, the matters contained in this chapter, as well as in many other parts of the Bible, are too horrid for humanity to read or for decency to hear, for it appears, from the 35th verse of this chapter, that the number of women-children consigned to debauchery by the order of Moses was thirty-two thousand.
People in general do not know what wickedness there is in this pretended word of God. Brought up in habits of superstition, they take it for granted that the Bible is true, and that it is good; they permit themselves not to doubt of it, and they carry the ideas they form of the benevolence of the Almighty to the book which they have been taught to believe was written by his authority. Good heavens! it is quite another thing; it is a book of lies, wickedness, and blasphemy; for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty?
Paine judges Moses by the standards that he would judge the way that 18th century Englishmen of sufficient birth would treat each other. The Pennsylvania of his time was one that ran a spectrum from the developed East to the wild West, where the Eastern coast was ethnically cleansed of native inhabitants and its Western border was still engaged in bloody guerrilla war between natives and Europeans, with massacres committed on both sides. The England of his time was one where Luddites were hanged for damaging factories, and riots were broken up with bayonets and rifles. It was also a time where Ireland was pacified with brutality and oppression. It was also a time of massacres in India, in Africa, and in Guyana. This cruelty outlived Paine by many, many years. Just last night, listening to the BBC, I heard that victims of English cruelty in the Mau Mau uprising were suing Great Britain. One woman told of driving with her husband and children in 1958, and being stopped at a road block by British soldiers. She and her husband were separated, interrogated, and tortured. Her husband was castrated. Both were eventually released, and spent the next decade scouring Kenya looking for their children, whom they never found. They reluctantly concluded that they had all been murdered. She was suing the UK for war crimes.

Moses lived in a time where empires put whole peoples to the sword. The Assyrian empire, which shows up later in the Bible, impaled the entire populations of those they conquered, leaving them to die horribly over several days. Israel was a new nation surrounded by vicious enemies. If their actions seem horrific, they were, but no more so than their neighbors.

As Walter Kauffman wrote in reply to attitudes like Paine's: "The reproach of callousness and insufficient social conscience can hardly be raised. Our social conscience comes largely from the religion of Moses. ... [But] to find the spirit of the religion of the Old Testament in [these biblical passages], is like finding the distinctive genius of America in the men who slaughtered the Indians."

The third theme is that of the Transjordan Israelites. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh, liked the land in Moab for grazing cattle, and asked Moses to allow them to reside there. Moses, assuming this was a dodge to keep them from participating in the conquest of Canaan, was upset with the request. But the leaders of these tribes promised to form the advance guard in the conquest, and return to this land only after Canaan was under Israelite control. With this stipulation, Moses agreed. Sadly, because of this, these tribes were the first lost tribes, as they did not have the same protection as the other tribes, and were picked away by conquest. Sadly, among the more zealous Religious Zionists, there are those who make a claim on the Transjordanian lands that were once occupied by Reuben and Gad for a modern state of Greater Israel. It is not clear that the Jordanians would ever comply with this.

Masei: Cities of Refuge

Tuesday, July 17, 2012
This Torah portion recaps the journey the Israelites took through the desert on their way to Canaan. Then God tells Moses the rules for the invasion of Canaan, ironic considering that God has ordered Moses' death on this side of the Jordan River without permitting him to set foot in Canaan.

God tells Moses that the Israelites are to drive out the current inhabitants of Canaan, who have committed offenses to God bad enough that the Israelites are the retribution God has planned for the Canaanites. The Israelites are to destroy all the idols and altars of the Canaanites. The Canaanites who remain, God predicts, will be "that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell. Moreover it shall come to pass, that I shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them." [Numbers 33: 55-56]. The Hebrew of "pricks in your eyes" is "bee stings in your eyeballs". Not a comforting image.

Then God defines the borders of the Promised Land. I'm not going to bother to quote this part (it's not like the Bible isn't readily available), since it has become the justification today for Religious Zionists to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, as well as some Transjordanian land as well, claiming that this ancient promise justifies their actions.

Because the Levites are not a tribe in the same sense that the other tribes are, they are given cities and their surrounding suburbs for their tribe. After describing these cities, God explains that a few of the cities will be designated Cities of Refuge. If a person commits manslaughter, they can escape to a city of refuge, and the city will protect them from the victim's family's vendetta until there can be a trial. The manslaughterer can find refuge in the city, and will be safe until there can be a fair trial. The passage defines the difference between murder and manslaughter. I'm not aware of a more ancient text to make the distinction.

But not only does the Bible make that distinction, but God will, later on in the Bible, designate six particular cities to be cities of refuge. To me, this seems particularly noteworthy. Who would want to live in a city of refuge, knowing that potential murderers, and people who want to kill them, will show up there? But there is also mercy in this, as these cities of refuge provide asylum for those who accidentally kill others.

The passage ends with resolution for the daughters of Zelophehad, who are told to marry within their tribe, so that their inheritance, while theirs, does not pass to another tribe when they marry.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק


Devarim: See That Good Land

Wednesday, July 25, 2012
The Book of Deuteronomy (Greek for "second law") is the last book of the Torah. Moses has guided the Children of Israel to Moab, to the East Bank of the Jordan River, and they are ready to cross the river and enter the Promised Land. God has told Moses that he must ascend the mountain on that bank, and die, and that Joshua, son of Nun, will lead the Israelites across the river to their destiny. As a final gesture, he assembles the Children of Israel and makes one last great speech, which is the Book of Deuteronomy.

The Documentary Hypothesis suggests that Deuteronomy was written by a different author than the rest of the Bible, a post-exilic author. It certainly has a different feel than the other books of the Torah. About 70% of the book is a repeat of things in the rest of the Torah, with about 30% new information. The Ten Commandments are repeated here, but are subtly different. Often the rules repeated here have a slightly different spin on them.

The book starts with Moses describing their journey of the last forty years. He does not paint a flattering picture of their conduct, showing how their bickering, idolatry and faithlessness is what contributed to their misfortune. He tells the story about the spies who were chosen to enter the land and report back to the Israelites, and how their faithlessness condemned their generation to die in the wilderness [Deuteronomy 1: 35-39], with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb. The date of this condemnation is taken to be Tisha B'Av, which is coming up this Saturday (but because it falls on Shabbat this year, will be observed on Sunday).

There is a midrash that at each new camp in the Wilderness, God commanded each of the generation that left Egypt to dig their own graves and lie in them. Each night, they would line up in front of their individual graves, enter them and lie down inside the grave. And each time this was done, a few of them did not emerge from their graves. After 40 years, the graves had consumed them all. By the time they reached the end of the Book of Numbers, none of that generation were left.

Because Moses is addressing a generation of people born in the Wilderness who never knew Egypt, he has to restate the rules to this new generation. He knows that when he finishes talking, he has to die, so Deuteronomy has an urgency as Moses tries to tell these people everything he possibly can that he feels that they need to know.

Va'etchanan: Remember and Protect

Friday, August 3, 2012
This Torah portion contains a re-telling of the Ten Commandments (which in the Jewish tradition are the Ten Utterances), and the Shema, or statement of faith, probably the line in the whole Torah that best condenses the Jewish faith into six words.

The Ten Commandments are numbered differently by Jews than by Christians. "I am the LORD thy God" is a preamble to the Christians, but the first utterance to the Jews. Jews also lump all examples of covetous behavior into one utterance, whereas Christians separate the first example of covetousness (house in Exodus, wife from Deuteronomy) from the others. The Jewish fourth utterance (the Christian third commandment) begins with a different word in Exodus than in Deuteronomy. In Exodus, the word is zachor, or "remember". In Deuteronomy, the word is shamor, or "guard", or "protect". So the line is "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy," in Exodus, and "Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God has commanded thee."

There are other differences, and they are worth noting, but the shamor/zachor difference is fascinating to Judaism. One midrash says that God said both words simultaneously at Sinai, and that Moses had to relate it twice to provide both concepts. The great erotic/mystical poem L'cha Dodi, that Jews recite on Friday evenings has the line "shamor v'zachor b'dibur echad," which can be translated as "shamor and zachor in a single utterance".

The idea is that the Divine happens on a level that transcends language---that language is a mediator and that gnosis is too immediate to have language as a filter. Moses has to share his experiences of gnosis in a medium that the Israelites understand: their own language. But Moses and God have an intimacy more direct than language. In seeking an experience of the Divine, one begins with words and later eschews them in silence.

The Shema [Deuteronomy 6:4} is one of the holiest prayers in Judaism. It is the testament of faith of the Jewish people. The King James Bible has it and the next paragraph as:
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: 
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates."
 Shema yisra'el YHVH Eloheinu YHVH echad. Listen, Israel! YHVH is our God. YHVH is one (unity). More metaphorically, yisra'el is one who wrestled with God, so everyone who wrestles with the concept of God, who struggles with faith, whose faith is interlaced with serious doubts. Eloheinu could be a noun "our God", or it could be a verb "that which Gods us". So it could be interpreted as: "Listen, those of you grappling with the concept of God! The fourfold ineffable Name that balances the four elements, that was, is, and shall be is Godding us. This ineffable Force that penetrates time and space is the unifying Force in the universe." That's a bit more resonant for me.

The first line of the Shema is considered so holy that Jews in immediate peril of their lives will say it to make it the last thing they say in this life. There was a story of an IDF soldier who spotted a discharged PLO grenade, and jumped on it and recited the first line of the Shema. It is said that Rabbi Akiva, who was executed by the Romans by having his skin torn off with iron combs, remained calm until he died, when he recited the Shema just before expiring.

Eikev: Thy Corn, And Thy Wine, And Thine Oil

Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Yes, this is the Torah portion that the name of this blog comes from, and yes, I've blogged about this Torah portion before. The second paragraph of the Shema prayer comes from this Torah portion.

Moses tells the Children of Israel: "And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul." [Deuteronomy 10:12]. The Hebrew word for fear being used here is yirah, which sometimes is translated as awe. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes this feeling as the same feeling you have when you are in a room, presumably alone, when suddenly you realize that someone else is in the room with you. There are other words in Hebrew for being in fear of your life, and this is a very different feeling, the sudden awareness that God is right there with you.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Hanina said that "everything is in the hand of Heaven except the fear of Heaven", [Berachot, 33b] because of the above quote. He asked, "Is the fear of Heaven such a little thing?" Rabbi Hanina quoted Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (considered to be the legendary author of the Zohar) as saying that "The Holy One, blessed be He, has in His treasury nought except a store of the fear of Heaven, as it says, The fear of the Lord is His treasure?"

But Rabbi Hanina replied, "Yes, for Moses, it was a small thing. To illustrate by a parable, if a man is asked for a big article and he has it, it seems like a small article to him; if he is asked for a small article and he does not possess it, it seems like a big article to him."

Later, in the passage quoted in the second paragraph of the Shema prayer, Moses says, "And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil." [Deuteronomy 11: 13-14].

Later in the same passage in the Talmud, Rabbi Ishmael reasoned that because God commands the Israelites to gather their corn, their wine, and their oil, that Jews should not eschew occupations by becoming ascetic. [Berachot, 35b]. Even though God commands the Jews to study Torah, they must live in the world and work to sustain themselves as well as studying Torah. This was disputed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was an ascetic. But, the Talmud notes: "Many have followed the advice of Ishmael, and it has worked well; others have followed R. Simeon b. Yohai and it has not been successful."

The Jewish religion is a householder religion. The religious Jew does not have the option of shutting out the world and devoting himself exclusively to religious devotions. Even some today among the ultra-Orthodox live on welfare and study Torah without working, this was against the majority opinion in the Talmud.

The spirituality within Freemasonry is also a spiritual path for men who have careers and live in the world. We have our occupations and we volunteer in Freemasonry after our work duties are completed. Among Masons, corn is a symbol of what we work for that sustains our bodies and nourishes us. Wine is a symbol of what we work for that gladdens the heart and brings joy. Oil is a symbol of what we work for that illuminates the spirit and brings us closer to God. To the Mason, these are the wages of a Fellow Craft. It takes a certain level of understanding in Masonry to be able to yield these rewards, and it takes labor in the Masonic quarries to produce results. We have to work for this, and have ever since Adam outgrew the immediate gratification of the Garden of Eden.

The Foreskin of the Heart

Thursday, August 6th, 2009
Please forgive me for the unpleasant mental images that spring from the title of this post. Jews around the world are approaching the second Shabbat of Consolation after Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Yesterday was Tu B’Av, the Jewish St. Valentine’s Day, and so it is not inappropriate to consider matters of the heart.
The weekly Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is Eikev, the third piece of Deuteronomy, or D’varim, the last book of the Pentateuch. Moses stands on Mount Pisgah, and can see the Promised Land he may never reach. His six-score years of life on this earth are over, and his last mission before he dies is to give his people the final portion of his take on God’s wisdom before they cross the Jordan River and enter the land without him.
In Eikev, Moses lays out the virtues of obedience to Deity, the rules for entering the Promised Land, an entry that will come with a swath of blood in the book of Joshua, reminds the Israelites of their sin of the Golden Calf and to warn them about idolatry in the new land, and exhorts them to serve their God in their new home.
We find the following line, standing on its own, outside the context of what comes before or after it, in Deuteronomy 10:16:
וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם; וְעָרְפְּכֶם–לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד
The King James Bible translates this as: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.”
That’s pretty much the literal translation. If you want to cringe at this metaphor, go right ahead. But don’t end there. There is something beautiful in this ugly metaphor.
What was circumcision to the Israelites? It is described as a b’rit milah, or covenant of circumcision, colloquially called a bris by the Ashkenazi Jews. The word milah refers to the circumcision, as the first word (umal’tem) in the passage above, and the b’rit refers to a covenant, specifically the Covenant between God and Abraham. The whole nature of the relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham is described by the word b’rit. This is the basic agreement to have a God-people relationship, and the nature of the mutual benefits such an agreement will have. Among Jews and Muslims, male circumcision is a de facto standard, so much so that outsiders are routinely referred to as the “uncircumcised”.
So what could a circumcision of the heart entail? While it is not obvious whether a man is circumcised or not without a high level of familiarity with him, it is impossible to tell if a person has circumcised his heart. Why is Moses asking us to do this?
Throughout the Torah, Moses talks about the sin of hardening one’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened against the Israelites, which ends up ruining his country when plague after plague hardens rather than softens his heart. The rebellious Israelites are described as stiff-necked and hard-hearted. It is almost as if a thick layer of calluses has grown over the heart and blocks out all empathy.
What if, with a sharp scalpel, all of the calluses and gunk could be stripped away, leaving the heart soft, pliable, and available? It would hurt, but afterwards, the heart would be free to feel its full range of emotions.
Later, in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” This time we’re not asked to do it ourselves– God will do this to us whether we want Him to or not.
And in Jeremiah 4:4: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.”
Here’s the important part: wickedness hardens the heart, and a hardened heart is able to be more wicked without conscience intervening. A mason is obligated to remain virtuous, and his conscience should prod him into doing what is right. We know that if we stray too grievously from the right, we will fall into tragedy, and in the midst of tragedy, the buffers around the heart get stripped away, and we suffer heartache. In that heartache, we feel emotions we’ve prevented ourselves from feeling for a long time, and in the suffering we feel, there is opportunity not only for genuine contrition, but for the heartache we feel to teach us compassion for others in similar straits, and to make us better men.
In sudden tragedy, the GAOTU circumcises the foreskins of our hearts, but it is less painful if we do it ourselves, at our own speed. Most of us can remember a dead friend or family member who never found out how much we loved them, and it stings the eyes with tears to know this. How much less painful is it to remember a dead friend or family member who lived fully aware of how much we cherished them. It takes a bare, softened heart to love another, and it is better that we should keep our hearts so conditioned than for fate and the GAOTU to suddenly rip the outer layers off of our hearts in sudden tragedy. It is also wise to know that most of us are carrying such griefs, with varying levels of capability. Where one man sees another’s anger, a different man sees another’s grief, and this man is better equipped to alleviate the distress of his brother.
Think of the event in your life that has hurt you the most deeply, and understand that almost everyone else has been wounded that deeply some time in their life. Let your circumcised heart teach you compassion for the sufferings of others, even those sufferings that are invisible to you.
As masons, we are called upon to embody the Masonic Virtues of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. How often do we ask ourselves if we are treating our brothers with the Brotherly Love they deserve? How often do we ask ourselves if we have contributed liberally enough to the relief of a distressed brother mason, his widow and orphans? With a circumcised heart, one is better able to see where he can be of service to others. Circumcision is a sign of a Covenant with our Creator. The circumcision of the heart ends up being vastly more important than the lower circumcision.
In the martial art of aikido, the practitioner engages in physical combat with his heart wide open to the emotions of his attacker. This is terrifying, but ultimately more powerful, and all the most profound examples of the art of aikido show a practitioner able to connect his heart to his assailant’s heart, and thereby to turn an attacker into a brother. One of my old senseis used to say, “Aikido is the art of turning your attacker into your friend, whether he likes it or not.”
Terry Dobson Sensei was a student of the Founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei. He writes:
I hate the samurai. I think the samurai suck, and you can quote me. It’s not that they were without virtue, or nobleness. But they didn’t have a lot of heartfulness. One of the first steps to being a samurai was to get beyond love and grief. All this romance about samurai life ignores the fundamental truth that it was a very heartless existence. Japan gave us this wonderful art of Aikido. It gave me my life. But you have to be judicious about it. You have to include the heart stuff. Realize that what you’re dealing with is a warm. live human being whose body and spirit may be easily hurt, easily crushed. You must throw another person in the context of love. This is hard to do, especially when you’ve had a lousy day or when you owe back taxes. So you must continually come back to the fact that there is no separation between you and the other person.
There’s nothing cool about this, because a cool heart is a numb heart. Contemporary culture tells us to be cool, but the heart tells us that there’s something more important than being cool, something realer than cool. Brotherly love isn’t cool. Loving your Creator isn’t cool. Love isn’t cool. That’s why Freemasonry will probably never be cool. The grips and tokens and passwords and rings and such may look cool, and our buildings may look cool on the outside, but the heart of Freemasonry is warm, not cool.

Re'eh: There Shall Be A Place

Tuesday, August 14, 2012
The Documentary Hypothesis suggests that the Deuteronomist wrote during the Babylonian Exile after the destruction of Solomon's Temple. If we accept this assumption, then Deuteronomy was written after the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah had come and gone, the Temple created and destroyed, the Jewish national identity having been built up, sustained, and then facing the worst crisis of its existence thus far. Much of Deuteronomy takes on a sad irony when looked at from this perspective. Much of the Tanakh comes from a perspective straddled between Joshua's conquest of Canaan and the completion of the building of the Second Temple and the return from the Babylonian Exile. Similarly, much of Masonic mythical perspective is straddled between the death of Master Hiram Abiff and the triumph of Zerubbabel.

In this Torah portion, Moses reveals God's plan for a place (מָּקוֹם, or makom in Hebrew) that will be the Indwelling of God on the Earth. This will be a place where the Israelites can perform their sacrifices and focus their religious devotions.

Moses warns the Israelites that God has decided to utterly destroy the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, and  the Israelites are to be the vehicle for that destruction. Moses points out that the Canaanites are being destroyed because of their own offenses, and that everything about their society is abhorrent. Their worship, their practices, their social structures, their moral values, their personalities; none of this is to be emulated. In contrast to this, the Israelites are to trust that God will provide them with their own central place of worship, where sacrifices and pilgrimages will take place:
"Then there shall be a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His Name to dwell there; thither shall ye bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto the Lord: And ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God." [Deuteronomy 12: 11-12].
From the perspective of the Babylonian Exile, it is clear that Moses is referring to the Temple at Jerusalem. By the Name (haShem in Hebrew) is meant the Presence of God, the Pillar of Cloud and Fire that followed the Israelites through all their journeys in the Wilderness, which dwelled in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, just as it dwelled in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle. From that historical perspective, the Conquest of Canaan, the time of the Judges, the establishment of the monarchy under Saul, the founding of the line of King David, the conquest of Salem and the Jebusites, the establishment of the capital at Jerusalem, and the anointing of King Solomon were necessary before the Temple could be built. To a Jew well-versed in Messianic lore, these steps were necessary and successive, each inevitability building off the previous. But to the tribes massed along the bank of the Jordan in Moab, the vagueness of "a place" could mean anything.

To Jews today, that place is still sacred. The Western Wall still stands, and Jews are forbidden from ascending the Temple Mount. For Masons, the destruction of the Second Temple meant a transition from a physical edifice to a spiritual edifice. Those who have read Dante know that he regarded the Temple Mount as an Omphalos, a center point of the Earth, and placed the mountain island of Purgatory at its antipode.

This idea of a center point where God dwells appears in the Masonic point within the circle. The first step towards universality was to assign a single point of worship, common to Twelve Tribes. The second, which came with the stirrings towards Messianism, which predicted that at some future time, all religions would worship the same One, at the same Temple. In the prophecy of Zechariah, "And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall there be One Lord, and His Name One." Zechariah, prophet of Zerubbabel, is important alike to Masons and Jews.

Shoftim: Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Follow

Monday, August 20, 2012
In this week's Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites to appoint judges, and tells the judges how they should judge cases. He tells them: "Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee." [Deuteronomy 16:20]. Editorially, I have taken this translation from the Jewish Publication Society's 1919 Bible, rather than the King James Bible, that I usually use for English translations. Why?

The King James Version says: "That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." The Hebrew line begins: "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף" The repeat of the word tsedeq (justice) is important here. In the Torah, words are often repeated for emphasis, and the rabbis understand that a double word stresses something significant and worthy of commentary. The King James Version translators understand that tsedeq tsedeq means more than merely justice, but their translation, "that which is altogether just" seems deficient to me because the repeated word is important to the message.

The Promised Land is a place contingent on the pursuit of justice, and the later prophets will tell us that without justice, the Israelites have no claim on the land. All of the spiritual practices and observances, sacrifices and prayers are irrelevant without social justice in the land. Indeed, Isaiah says of this:
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. [Isaiah 1: 14-18].
Here is the same plea to seek justice, but Isaiah points out that religious practices are detestable to God when performed by people with blood on their hands.

Later in the passage, Moses explains how to judge a capital crime. A person cannot be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The Torah says "At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death." [Deuteronomy 17: 6]. The rabbis of the Mishnah ask why two witnesses are mentioned, and then immediately afterwards, three witnesses are mentioned. Are two sufficient?

The rabbis are concerned about perjury in capital cases, and point out that three witnesses can counter the testimony of two witnesses, but also that two witnesses can counter the testimony of three witnesses. Indeed, the Mishnah points out that this language suggests that two witnesses can counter the testimony of a hundred witnesses.

Moses predicts that the people in the Promised Land are going to want a king, and when they do, the king should be chosen by God rather than by the people. Again, if you believe the Documentary Hypothesis, this is Biblical retcon, predicting the story of Samuel and Saul retroactively. There is a warning that the king should not be opulent; if he acquires too much gold, horses and palaces, he will distance himself too much from the people, and be unable to deal with common people justly.

In the Magnum Opus (Pike's older version of the Scottish Rite ritual),  in the 14th degree, Grand Elect Perfect and Sublime Mason, Pike's lecture of the degree points out that the kings failed in their moral authority, and that failure began with King Solomon:
Afterwards [after the Temple was built] this great King, renowned for his wisdom, and long the faithful servant of God, became deaf to the voice of duty; and, filled with haughty pride at the glory he had gained, vain of his great wealth, and intoxicated with flattery, he forgot the lessons which he had taught to others, multiplied the number of his wives and concubines, and gave himself up to shameless and indecent luxury; and, yielding to the blandishments of lascivious women, he built Temples to the Gods of other nations, and profanely offered up to them the incense which should have been offered to the True God alone, in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. [XIV: 11]
Pike goes on to suggest that the Grand Elect Perfect and Sublime Masons he perfected upon learning the lessons of the Royal Arch did not follow him into his moral decay, but kept Masonry alive, knowing that the Kings of Israel and Judah would fail, and knowing that exile was to follow. How those secrets were preserved and recovered in the Babylonian Captivity, in Masonic tradition, is a secret kept in the Chapter of Rose Croix in the Southern Jurisdiction of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, and in the Council of Princes of Jerusalem in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, and in the degrees of Cryptic Masonry in the York Rite. The whole legend as described in the Magnum Opus in the XIV chapter is worth reading. I would say that it is required knowledge for any Scottish Rite Mason who wants to understand the Scottish Rite version of the Royal Arch Legend.

Later in the Torah portion, comes another iteration of lex talionis: "And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." [Deuteronomy 19: 20]. The Talmud is clear that lex talionis should be interpreted to mean "at most one life for one life, at most an eye for an eye, at most a tooth for a tooth, at most a hand for a hand, and at most a foot for a foot." Vengeance should not exceed the harm that was done. Also, the Talmud (Bava Kama 83b-84a) interprets these penalties to be tort penalties to be exacted monetarily rather than corporally. One should pay the penalty fees for damaging one eye if he damages one eye, etc.

In describing the warfare that is to come, the Torah invents the concept of compassionate leave. It dictates that a soldier who just built a house but has not yet moved in should not go into battle, but go home and enjoy that house rather than fight in a war. A man who is engaged to be married should wait until after his wedding (and consumnation) before going to war. Someone who has planted a vineyard that has not yet borne first fruits should stay home and tend his vineyard. A coward should be dismissed as not to dismay the soldiers who stay and fight.

An army should give the city permission to surrender peacefully before they attack the city. If the city refuses to surrender, the Torah (unfortunately) suggests that the army should put all the adult males to the sword, and take the women, children, livestock and riches as spoils.

During a siege, it is forbidden to kill a fruit-bearing tree. This shows a knowledge of peace after fighting since an orchard is the work of generations, and once destroyed is not easy to regain.

The final thing covered in this week's Torah portion is the corpse found in a city, where the murderer is never discovered. The people of the city must take a cow and take her to swiftly-flowing stream, break her neck, and the elders of the city should wash their hands in the waters around her dead body, expiating themselves from the crime.

In the apocryphal book of Tobit, Tobit insists on burying the corpses of the Israelites slain fighting Sennacherib. Later in the narrative, Tobit loses all of his property and is struck blind, but is healed and restored by the Archangel Raphael, who has been prompted to rescue Tobit by the intercession of the Grateful Dead, those whom Tobit buried. In 1966, Robert Hunter was looking to change the name of the band The Warlocks whom he was writing lyrics for, and chose The Grateful Dead from an anthropological essay about Tobit.

Ki Teitzei: If a bird's nest chance to be before thee

Wednesday, August 29, 2012
We're at that part of Deuteronomy where there are long lists of commandments, seemingly in no particular order. The rabbis are fascinated with this; what seems like random data often contains hidden messages. Moralists like to make lists of rules in order from most important to least important, but the list of rules in this week's Torah portion scatter across the moral compass from soulful and empathetic, to peculiar and enigmatic, to wicked and cruel (if actually carried out). It's hard to write a commentary about a list of rules in no particular order with no plot, but I'll do my best.

The first commandment in this Torah portion is an attempt to minimize the violent rapes of conquered women that comes with conquering a foreign city (a practice that did not end in Ancient times, but was more prevalent back then). The Torah's solution is to create rules for sexual plunder. To a modern conscience, allowing for sexual plunder at all seems reprehensible, but to the Ancients, it was pretty standard, and the common way to motivate soldiers in your army to fight for you, and impossible to control once it got started. The Torah suggests that if an Israelite soldier wants a particular captive woman, he must marry her. He must invite her into his household, shave off her hair (so that he is forced to deal with her based on her personality rather than her looks), change her clothes from foreign dress to Israelite dress, and live with the soldier for a whole month before he is allowed to consummate the marriage. If, during that time, he decides he does not want to marry her, she is to be a free woman, and not a slave.

OK, so yuck, but not as bad as raping and murdering her, which was pretty common in Ancient conquests. It is questionable whether the captive woman has any say in the arrangement (which makes it still rape) but she either gets treated as a wife or a free woman, which gives her more rights than she would as an alien or a slave.

Disobedient sons are to be flogged. If they remain disobedient, they are to be stoned to death in public. The rabbis later mitigated this, based on the way that the commandment is worded. If a youth (from age 12 to age 12½) who is both a glutton and a drunkard disobeys his parents, both his parents (if they decide to do so) will bring the son to the court to trial. If the court finds the son guilty, the son is to be stoned to death by all the men of the city. The Talmud tells us that courts never permitted the execution to occur.

If you see a beast of burden collapse under its load, you are required to help the animal to its feet.

Then we find this passage:
If a bird's nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young: But thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days. [Deuteronomy 22: 6-7].
One of the great villains of the Talmud is former rabbi Elisha ben Abuya. He was a prominent rabbi who lost his faith and became an apostate. The Talmud tells the story of how he lost his faith. He was looking out his window, and he saw a boy climb a tree to steal some eggs from a bird's nest on one of the branches. The boy tried to shoo the mother away from the nest with his hand (to obey this commandment), and lost his balance and fell, snapping his neck and killing him instantly. Elisha ben Abuya could not understand why God  would claim that shooing away the bird would prolong the boy's life, and yet the boy died fulfilling the commandment. He lost his faith in that moment.

If a man rapes a virgin woman betrothed to another man, then the man must pay a dowry to the woman's father, and must marry her and is not permitted to divorce her. While this seems barbaric, it is better than killing her, and it is better, in a highly patriarchal society, to setting her loose after she is no longer a virgin (and therefore less marriageable). The rapist must financially support his victim for life.

Soldiers in an encampment should defecate outside the camp, and must bury their feces.

Do not charge interest when loaning money to another Israelite.

You are permitted to eat fruit while working in another person's orchard, as long as you don't carry food away from the work site.

Pay your laborers daily so that they have the money as soon as they stop working each day. This is where the particular idea in the Mark Master Mason degree comes from.

Do not be too thorough in harvesting your crops. Leave some for the orphan, the alien and the widow to glean. Gleaning is an interesting form of support for the poor. Rather than hand money or food to the poor, allow them to work your lands for their own subsistence.

40 lashes is too many. From this, the rabbis of the Talmud insisted that 39 lashes was the maximal corporal punishment.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading grain.

If a brother dies childless, and leaves his wife a widow, his brother is obliged to marry the widow and take care of her. If he refuses, he can take his case up with the courts. His sister-in-law will pluck off his shoe, and spit in his face as a testimony that he did not choose to marry her.

Finally, the Israelites are to remember that the Amelekites were very cruel to them, slaughtering the Israelites as they left Egypt. The Torah, paradoxically, commands that: "thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it." [Deuteronomy 25:19].

How does one simultaneously blot out the remembrance of someone and yet not forget them? The common interpretation is to destroy all traces of Amalek, and never forget their cruelties towards the Israelites. This is a dangerous combination. The Bible calls for a total extermination of the Amalekites. God (through Samuel) dethrones Saul, after a war of extermination of the Amalekites, for not killing Agag, the king of the Amalekites. Haman from the Book of Esther is considered to be a surviving Amalekite. Today, some of the religious Zionists regard the Palestinians as Amalekites, and use this to justify future genocides. It's all very ugly in how it can be interpreted.

There is a virtue in remembering that certain peoples have committed great atrocities. It does not seem that there is much virtue in firing up that remembrance to commit new ones.

Ki Tavo: A Syrian Ready to Perish Was My Father

Thursday, September 6, 2012
This Torah portion covers the first fruits of the harvest, the tithes owed, and a long litany of blessings and curses that come from obeying or disobeying the commandments spelled out in the Torah.

When the first fruits of the harvest arrive, the Israelite farmer is to take the first of each fruit, put them in a basket, and make a pilgrimage to the Temple at Jerusalem some time during the festival of Shavuot. The farmer is to tell the priest that he is affirming to God that he has come to into the Promised Land. The priest is to take the basket and place it before the altar at the Temple. The farmer is then to offer the following declaration:
A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: And when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression: And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. [Deuteronomy 26: 5-10].
This is an exercise in gratitude for good fortune. When we come into good fortune, we should be grateful to God for blessing us with good fortune. This is a good example of a type of mitzvah called zachor, or remembrance. I have mentioned previously that mitzvot are sometimes divided into ethical practices, remembrances, and esoteric practices. Remembrances help an adherent feel that they exist within a thread in the tapestry of history, and the Sacred History of Judaism is the story of the Exodus. The "Syrian ready to perish" has been interpreted to be either Abraham or Jacob, both of whom sojourned in Egypt during times of economic distress.

It is important to remind my readers that Deuteronomy is an oration given by Moses on the far bank of the Jordan in the land of Moab, given to people who had been wandering in the desert for forty years. A fruit was a rare delicacy to these people. That they would someday gather a whole basket of fruits and offer them up as a sacrifice hints at much bounty to come. The honey promised is fig or date honey, not bee honey. The Talmud tells of Rami bar Ezekiel visiting Bnei Brak, and seeing goats grazing under fig trees, with fig honey dripping on the grass as the lactating goats dripped milk on the grass, so that milk and honey flowed onto the ground. [Ketuvot 111b].

Moses commands the Israelites to make the law public by writing it out on large stones plastered with lime. Then God commands them to build an altar of stone, and "thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them". [Deuteronomy 27: 5].

Moses lists a bunch of specific curses for certain behaviors, and after each curse is mentioned, the whole congregation of Israel repeats "Amen". What are these behaviors?

  1. Idolatry
  2. Showing disrespect for one's father and mother
  3. Moving one's neighbor's boundary marker
  4. Misdirecting the blind
  5. Perverting justice for the foreigner, the widow and the orphan
  6. Having sex with the wife of one's father
  7. Having sex with an animal
  8. Having sex with a sister or half-sister
  9. Having sex with one's mother-in-law
  10. Striking down one's neighbor in secret
  11. Taking a bribe to put an innocent man to death
  12. Not upholding and keeping the entire Torah (literally "this law")

The rabbis interpreted the curse against misdirecting the blind as a curse against leading astray anyone who lacks wisdom. It is interesting that four of the twelve curses are sexual in nature, but none directly address homosexuality (meaning that incest and bestiality were much more stringent taboos than homosexuality). Notice that justice for foreigners in your land is paramount. Righteous people treat immigrants and aliens with proper justice.

The blessings and curses that follow lay out the simplest kind of theology. If you do right, God will reward you, and if you do ill, God will punish you. The rest of the passage lists the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience. But the history of the Jewish people has taught us that we suffer even when we have done no wrong, and that evil people can prosper without retribution in this lifetime. So the literal interpretation of what is said in this passage cannot be the whole story. Maimonides understood this, and understood that if we perform mitzvot only to stave off an angry God, then we are not acting from virtuous motives.

My readers understand that this litany of blessings and curses, if literally interpreted, depicts a Deity scarcely worthy of devotion. Each of us has a friend whom we have befriended solely because being that person's friend is only slightly less terrifying than being that person's enemy. That's a pretty lame reason to engage in worship, let alone friendship.

I find that there is a back-and-forth going on. There are things that humans can do that can ruin lives. Heroin addiction usually doesn't end well. There are things that humans can do that can ruin the lives of innocents. There is plenty of collateral damage in a war, and children living near pollution sites get leukemia, even when they didn't do the polluting. There are things that citizens can do that ruin the nation. The Talmud explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. [Yoma 9b]. The Talmud explains that Solomon's Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, but that the sin of sinat chinam was worse than the other three sins put together.

In the USA, we are going through a particularly contentious Presidential election campaign, and sinat chinam is everywhere. Because of sinat chinam, the credit rating of the USA has fallen for the first time ever. Congress spends more time bickering than solving problems. Outrageous lies and distortions are uttered about the candidates, and uttered by the candidates and their running mates. Celebrities are going on television and claiming that if the wrong candidate gets elected, there will be a thousand years of darkness.

Jews are not very apocalyptic in general, but during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, we were very apocalyptic. An apocalyptic literature spread at that time, and influenced Christian literature as well. Today, we are hearing apocalyptic rhetoric about this election, about the State of Israel, and about climate change. The curses in this passage seem apocalyptic in nature, describing an absolute breakdown of civilization and a reversion to utter barbarism and savagery.

The description of the curses in this Torah portion can be interpreted as what happens when a nation lives its life out of balance, when it fail to pursue justice, to live by the rule of law, to respect the dignity and integrity of all its citizens.

A crude form of idolatry practiced even among people of the Abrahamic faiths is to pretend that there is a bearded man in the sky who is perpetually angry at us for not obeying an irrational set of rules, whom we have to placate or be destroyed. This is a particularly pernicious form of idolatry, but a crude reading of this passage seems to support this. Except that the very first thing that gets cursed is idolatry. This is crucial to understanding the passage at a deeper level.

If you tell your average educated person that if they don't obey every arbitrary rule in the book, the bearded man in the sky will smite them, they will probably roll their eyes and think you are a nut. But if you tell them that injustice breeds more injustice, and that a society that rewards evil and punishes good will have a bad outcome, this seems more reasonable. If you tell a Star Wars fan that they have to harmonize with the Force, and not indulge in the Dark Side, they will understand you. If you tell a New Ager that they cannot oppose the Tao, but rather flow with it, that makes sense to them. If you abjure people not to pervert nature, but to take a survey of nature, and imitate nature's forms and harmonies, you might get a positive response.

The metaphor of God as King was effective to the Ancient Semitic imagination, but in a world where kings are largely obsolete, we need new ways to connect to the Grand Architect of the Universe. Ancient kings had absolute power over life and death, and were supposed to control the harvest, and bestow bounty and prosperity upon their lands. Anything other than absolute submission to the king was met with agonizing torture and death. In that sense, the Organizing Principle has a way of emerging into the world as we know it, and we would do well to observe these ways and imitate them. When we defy the way that nature organizes herself, we run into conflict with nature and the universe, and this often ends badly.

We need a new way to approach the Unifying Concept, the First Principle, the Prime Mover, the Force, the Tao, the Course in Which the Nations Run according to Giambattista Vico, or the cyclical 'asabiyyah of Ibn Khaldūn, the co-domain of consciousness, the cumulative epitome of states of awareness. To this end, we have a personal responsibility as individuals to seek virtue and eschew vice, and a civic and national responsibility to seek justice, uphold the weakest elements of society, and embrace the stranger, and a global responsibility to achieve harmony among all the peoples of the world.

Blessings come from living in harmony, not always, but usually. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us. Curses come from living out of balance, not always, but usually. As my mother used to tell me: "Don't go looking for disappointments in life. You'll find them anyway, but you'll find more of them if you look for them. Instead, look for joys, some of which you will not find unless you seek them out."

Nitzavim: the Law is not in Heaven

Tuesday, September 11, 2012
This Torah portion continues Moses' exhortation to the Children of Israel to seek the blessing and eschew the curse that comes with being in the Covenant. He warns them that everyone stands before God, not merely the leaders, but the men and women and children, even foreign laborers who chop wood and carry water. The rabbis have interpreted this mention of the foreign laborers as a reminder that no matter how badly off we are, there are some who are risking their lives to perform menial services for us, and they should be treated with the same dignity we hold for our leaders.

The Covenant is not merely for those who were there with Moses on that day, but for all of their descendants, leading up to the present time. There is an interpretation of this that says that each of us is there at that moment as well as being where we currently are. We are in suspension there, and that suspension informs us where we are now.

Interestingly, Moses predicts that the whole enterprise of occupying Canaan will fail, that the Children of Israel will be exiled after being conquered and subjugated by foreign armies, after significant moral collapse. He predicts that in exile, the Israelites will repent, and be allowed to return. In the Documentary Hypothesis, the Deuteronomist is writing during the time of the Babylonian exile, which gives these words a sense of hope rather than the defeatism that they would have if they were written in Moab on the West Bank of the Jordan, before the conquest of Canaan began.

Moses warns that, before the exile will be lifted, God will circumcise the foreskins of the hearts of the people who seek to return. The toughness around their hearts will be pared away, leaving a heart that is raw and tender. Only those with tender hearts can have the right attitude towards God and His commandments. Our society places a lot of value on being cool, but being emotionally aloof is a form of weakness. One has to have the heart open and raw and tender in order to perceive the emotional content in reality. Many rationalists are afraid of their emotions, mostly because they are afraid of being overpowered by their emotions. Moses is not advocating that our emotions overwhelm our reason, but that our experiences have non-negligible emotional content.

In Masonry, we say that the Compasses are a tool for circumscribing our desires and keeping our passions within due bounds. Every experienced Mason at least once has heard a WM flub his line and say "circumcising our desires", and it's usually good for a chuckle. But Moses is warning us that God will do precisely that. He will circumcise our hearts, the seat of our desires. Again, Masonry shows where this is going, and how to handle this the right way. We should not repress our desires, but merely to draw a circle and keep our desires within that circle, keeping our passions within due bounds. To the 18th century mind, passion was not a complimentary word. If you read the acid way in which George Washington talked about enthusiasm, you will see that these bursts of emotion made those in the Enlightenment Era very uncomfortable. And yet a person devoid of emotion is not human. By drawing boundaries, we allow for an emotional life that doesn't overwhelm our rational life.

The next passage is often quoted, but is more often completely forgotten:
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. [Deuteronomy 30: 11-14].
Everyone has access to the Torah. It is immediate. We carry it in our mouths and in our hearts. This is the Jewish version of "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." But it is a lesson that people continually fail to learn. No human can intercede with God on your behalf. There is no need to travel to a faraway country to find God. God is right here, right now.

Vayelech: This Song May Be A Witness

Monday, September 17, 2012
We are coming to the end of the Torah. Moses has been commanded by God to die. Moses finishes his oration by telling the people that they will pass the Jordan River and enter into the land, succeed in conquering the land under Joshua's leadership, and will find a place (מָּקוֹם in Hebrew) where the Temple will eventually be built. The zeal of the people will eventually slacken, and they will begin to worship other gods, and this will offend God, who will expel them from the land and beset them with curses.

To guard against this, Moses has composed a song which every Hebrew child is to memorize (the lyrics will be in the next Torah portion, the penultimate one) that will remind them to stay faithful. Once the Israelites are exiled from the land and cursed, they will still remember the song, and know why they are being punished.

Moses emphasizes the importance of the Law. He writes the Law down in a Torah scroll and orders that, once the Temple is built, it should be read out loud in its entirety in public in front of the Temple every seven years during the start of the Sabbatical Year. The books of Chronicles and Kings record that this practice stopped happening somewhere along the way, and the corrupt kings of Israel and Judah ruled in ignorance of the Law. Second Chronicles tells us that during the reign of Josiah, King of Judah, the Temple was renovated, and in a secret place celebrated by Royal Arch Masons, found a scroll with the Law written on it. [2 Chronicles 24: 14-19]. Previous to which, it had been lost to the Children of Israel. Josiah dedicated the rest of his reign to enacting the laws found in the scroll.

Something similar happens after the return to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. After the Second Temple is built by Zerubbabel, the Scribe Ezra gathers the people and reads them the entire Torah. The whole nation wept in dismay for having forgotten the Torah. [Nehemiah 8: 9]. The efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah were devoted to keeping the laws of the Torah in the newly rebuilt kingdom.

Ha'azinu: As An Eagle Stirreth Up Her Nest

Monday, September 24, 2012
This Torah portion consists of the Song of Moses and a brief epilogue in which Moses is commanded to go to the place where he will die.

The song, as you will recall from last week, is designed to be a testament. The Israelites are commanded to memorize it so that when they turn astray and are conquered and exiled, they cannot accuse God of having abandoned them. The song is meant to be evidence that God warned them that they were going astray. Moses tells the Children of Israel to teach the song to their children and have everyone sing the song so that it becomes a pervasive theme for them in the Promised Land.

In the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, we sing Pleyel's Hymn during the MM degree. In a Royal Arch Chapter, there are a lot of songs, and in our history, Masonry has often used music lyrics to instruct candidates. The Psalms are usually sung in Jewish worship, and the Bible has a lot of songs in it. The Song of Moses is meant to be pedagogical and prophetic in nature, warning the Israelites not to go astray, while predicting that they will.

If you look at a Torah scroll, the Song of Moses is written in two columns, making a striking pattern in the text. You will recall that the Song of the Sea has a brick-like pattern when written in a Torah scroll. I have heard that Orthodox Jewish children are taught the Song of Moses as the first verses of scripture that they learn, and yet, I am unable to find a tune for these verses.

In the song, there is a couplet: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: So the Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him." [Deuteronomy 32: 11-12].

The eagle as a symbol of God bears some explaining. While we regard the eagle as a bird of prey, swooping down and tearing prey to pieces, the Israelites noticed how tenderly the eagle takes care of her young, carefully tearing strips of meat for the eaglets to eat, and placing the nest safely in remote perches. Earlier in Exodus 19: 4, God tells Moses to tell the Children of Israel: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself."

The eagle appears in alchemy and haut-grade Masonry. Indeed, the double-headed Eagle of Lagash is the symbol of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. In alchemy, it is a symbol of whiteness, or the transmutation of base metals into fine metals. The eagle is also a symbol of the sign of Scopio, along with the fish and the scorpion. To describe the Deity as an eagle is very striking, but in context it is used to show the protective nature of the Deity, and the power to transport us to safety.

And yet, we can fail so badly that God will hid His face from us. The early Hasidic masters understood this to mean that not only would God hide His face from us, God would hide the hidden traces of His existence. We exist in a world where God is hidden. But a world where what is hidden about God is hidden from us is terrible, indeed. The Sufis understood that longing for God was a sacred emotion. In a world where the hidden face of God is hidden from us, there is the terrible peril that that longing might disappear, leaving nothingness in its wake.

" They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation." [Deuteronomy 32: 21]. In the Hebrew, there is a verbal wordplay between the non-God and the non-nation. When we worship something less than God, we become less than people.

The song ends by saying: "Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people." [Deuteronomy 32: 43]. This is a strange consolation. After verses of admonition, there is half a verse of mercy, and we are called upon to rejoice.

But the bitterness does not end there, for after Moses finishes the song, God calls him to Mount Nebo, to lay down his body and die. He tells Moses to look across the Jordan River at the Promised Land, but because he struck the rock at the Waters of Meribah, his punishment is to be that he never got to set foot in the Promised Land.

The Torah is nearly completed, and I will have more to say next week about the ending. I find it very strange that the narrative ends on such a bittersweet note, with the ungrateful Children of Israel getting a home while Moses is doomed to die alone in the clefts of the rocks.

V'Zot HaBerachah: The LORD Knew Face To Face

Monday, October 1, 2012
This is the final Torah portion in the Jewish calendar. Moses gives a blessing to each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Actually, each is more of a prophecy than a blessing, but these are usually referred to in the literature as blessings, because they mirror Jacob's blessings.

Many Jews never hear this Torah portion, because instead of being recited during Shabbat services, it is recited on Simchat Torah, the holiday that celebrates the end/beginning of the Torah cycle. The first few lines of Genesis are also read, to show that Torah is cyclical rather than linear.

Kabbalists and other esotericists make a correlation between the tribes and the signs of the Zodiac. There is no consensus about this, especially because in one reckoning, Levi and Joseph are tribes, and in another reckoning, Levi is not considered a tribe, and Joseph is split into Ephraim and Manasseh. The orientation of the Encampment has Levi at the center, and has Ephraim and Manasseh in the West, with Ephraim at the cardinal point in the West. This arrangement is included in the arrangement of a Royal Arch Chapter.

Moses' blessing somewhat anachronistically regards Joseph and Levi as tribes (in parallel with Jacob's blessing), and even more interestingly, excludes the tribe of Simeon completely. By the time of the Deuteronomist, Simeon had been assimilated into the tribe of Judah. Another theory is that while Simeon and Levi instigated the brutal revenge on Shechem for the Rape of Dinah [Genesis 34], Levi repented and devoted himself to Divine service, while Simeon did not, and thus deserved to disappear. Also, the rabbis regard Simeon as the primary instigator of the plot against Joseph, and suggest that he would have murdered Joseph had it not been for the intercession of Judah, who instead suggested that he be sold to Ishmaelites as a slave.

After the blessings, Moses climbs Mount Nebo, where God shows him the land of Gilead as far as the regions that Dan will receive, the lands that will be given to Naphtali, Ephraim, Manasseh, Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev Desert (negev in Hebrew means dry or south), the plain and the valley of Jericho, and two other cities. God explains that He is showing Moses the land the Israelites will inherit, but He will not permit Moses to enter the land. With that, God extinguishes Moses' life. The Hebrew says that Moses died al-pi YHVH (at the mouth of God) [Deuteronomy 34: 5]. God buries Moses in the clefts of the rocks at the summit of Mount Nebo, and no man knows where Moses' body lies. The Torah makes it clear that Moses was 120 years old, but still had vigor left in him (hence he was able to climb a mountain by himself) when he died.

The Israelites spent thirty days mourning the death of Moses, after which, Joshua son of Nun, who is described as having the spirit of wisdom in him (רוּחַ חָכְמָה, or ruach chochmah in Hebrew) as the result of Moses selecting him, becomes the person that the Children of Israel listen to. The Torah does not say that Joshua was their leader, merely that, due to his spirit of wisdom, they listened to him when he spoke.

The Torah notes that Moses was the only prophet in Israel whom God interacted with face to face, and that no other prophet was privileged to display the signs and wonders that Moses displayed. The rabbis have a hierarchy of prophecy with Moses at the apex, since Moses interacted with God face to face. God visited Abraham, which puts him next highest. God spoke to many prophets (and some whose prophet status is in question, like Balaam and Hagar). God visited some prophets in dreams, which the rabbis were far less impressed with.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק