Joseph has prophetic gifts and uses them to preserve Egypt. But he radically transforms his host nation. The average Egyptian, we are told, was grateful to be saved from starvation. But today, we would see Joseph as a tyrant.
He interprets Pharoah’s dreams to foresee seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. He advises Pharaoh to make all Egyptians give him part of their crops during the years of plenty. When the famine strikes, Joseph wields his power with uncompromising ruthlessness. When they run out of food, Joseph sells their own food back to them from Pharaoh’s storehouses that they stocked. When they run out of money, they sell him their livestock. When they run out of livestock they sell him their land. Finally, the only thing they have left to sell is their own their bodies and their labor, and they agree to indentured servitude to Pharaoh. Pharaoh already has supreme authority, but now Joseph has used the famine crisis to consolidate everything into Pharaoh’s grasp.
It’s an amazing saga and the first in human history of the orderly transition from what was an open agrarian society of landowners under a monarchy to totalitarian rule by an absolutist, an autocrat. All Egyptian citizens – except priests who already serve Pharaoh as god-king – lose not only all their possessions, but the most precious thing, their freedom. They no longer own themselves.
What follows is one of the most disturbing scenes of all, another turn of Joseph’s screw: Joseph now forcibly re-locates whole Egyptian towns to new ones, playing a cruel game of mixmaster with them for reasons that seem gratuitous and harsh.
So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh. Every Egyptian sold his field because the famine was too much for them, so the land passed over to Pharaoh. And he [Joseph] removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other.
We might say Joseph uprooted the Egyptians for strategic reasons. His measures saved Egypt from starvation, but the result is effectively enslavement of the entire populace. We could say he was averting a revolution against Pharaoh but he created a totalitarian regime. Everyone has a visceral attachment to his or her own land and home and local culture. When they made the deal, the Egyptians did so willingly. They were starving and even declared their gratitude to Pharaoh for saving their lives so they might live until the Nile flooded again and they might prosper and maybe even buy their old land back. But how long before the formerly free landowners and farmers chafe against their servitude to Pharaoh? Joseph wanted to make sure they were completely detached, dislocated, disunited. Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Spanish commentator even says Joseph was staging a notorious tactic – it was used used by Mao in China’s Cultural Revolution of the 20th century – to move urbanites from the major cities to farms, “from the capital to villages so that they would till the soil” as Ibn Ezra says. In both instances, it still seems cruel.
Americans old enough will remember Depression-era dislocation in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and in towns across the country when banks repossessed mortgages. Think of movies like the Grapes of Wrath or It’s a Wonderful Life. In The Plot Against America (2004), Philip Roth imagines an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi, becomes president in 1940. In league with Hitler, he implements a much subtler plan to destroy the Jews than burning them wholesale. He separates individuals from their families in Jewish enclaves like Newark and re-settles them in places like rural Kentucky. It’s a form of cultural and psychic extermination.
It’s also what nations do to each other. A bully country invades and if they haven’t slaughtered the natives, make them slaves or force them into exile. Some natives escape and take to the hills to fight a heroic guerrilla war. Every nation has this story. It is the story of the American Revolution against the British. It’s the story of the Americans and their cruelty to both African slaves and Native Americans. And long before white men slaughtered and herded them onto reservations, Native Americans did this to each other. In the 19th and 20th centuries we celebrated British rule over an empire of brown-skinned peoples as a victory of civilization. Now, we treat their subjugation of indigenous people as a paradigm of imperialist crimes, including colonialism and racism. In his sweeping book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), Yuval Noah Harari shows that eliminating the other is innate to our species. The story predates recorded history itself. It’s so universal, it’s likely a genetic instinctive heritage of being a primate. Gorillas and chimps do it to each other. Homo sapiens displaced Neanderthals and also Homo florensiensis, the so-called “hobbits.” (The name evokes not only their short stature but our sympathy.) Harari shows the drama re-enacted over and over: ethnic cleansing or slaughter; physical re-location, including slavery. The conquering culture erases the old gods and topples the statues of the conquered king. They force the conquered to speak their language and worship their gods. The Babylonians did it to the Israelites in 586 BCE. The Greeks tried to culturally erase ancient Israel in the late centuries BCE, though Chanukah celebrates the Jews’ violent resistance to their assimilation. The Romans did it to them in 70 CE. Moslems and Christians forced Jews to choose between conversion and death, most notoriously in the Inquisition.
It’s a great cartoon of history: one innocent, pure people native to the land are massacred, enslaved and culturally erased by a technologically superior but intrinsically corrupt imperialist one. Besides Westerners from Europe and America there were the vicious Mughals, Delhi sultans, Guptas, Mauryas, Sioux. In his “Avatar” movie mythology, James Cameron brings the cartoon (literally) forward to future interplanetary war. The evil aggressors are the same villains, white men representing an American-style capitalist military-industrial complex. We call it by names that in modern times signify unmitigated evil: racism, slavery, repression, fascism, totalitarianism, colonialism, imperialism, ethnic cleansing.
The implication of Harari’s book, perhaps unintended by the author, is that the narrative of an evil imperialist West just looks at history through the narrow window of our own era and guilt. It’s a luxury of self-laceration few other eras or nations could afford. Only the modern West turns the story against itself. But any time one tribe or culture or race claims their native land by rights of precedence – We were here first! – they are usually guilty of the same crimes. If we look, we will find these so-called indigenous natives almost certainly did it to others before they became victims. Maybe Harari at the time, an Israeli, was thinking of the Palestinians.
Why shouldn’t we be outraged by Joseph rule in Egypt?
Naturally, we root for the underdogs, the scrappy, poor natives fighting against wealthy cruel rulers with overwhelmingly larger, better-equipped armies. Why shouldn’t we be outraged by what Joseph did in Egypt? How could we possibly redeem Joseph from these accusations of cruelty and violence? What justification could he have had?
Let’s dismiss the fact that we’re being cultural narcissists and judging history anachronistically by our overly-refined standards today, like accusing Shakespeare of being a male chauvinist.
We could simply say Joseph was getting revenge for what he saw the Egyptians were going to do to his people down the road. Like I punch my brother in the nose because I know he’s gonna beat me up next week. But this requires we appreciate the anachronistic logic of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible where divine fate has no tomorrow or yesterday.
We could look at it as clever strategy. While Joseph is staging his Maoist-like Cultural Revolution, Pharaoh also grants Joseph’s brothers their own region. They are shepherds, abhorred by the Egyptians who worshipped animals as gods, not just commodities. Perhaps out of hospitality and enthusiasm for Joseph, and to protect the strangers, he gives Joseph’s brothers the fattest land in Egypt, Goshen. East of the Nile delta, it is still the most fertile part of Egypt. Its very name in Egyptian, Pa-qas, or the modern Faqous, means “pouring forth.”
The fact is, it was either a fabulously lucky accident or yet more evidence of God’s finger stirring the pot of history and fate, or at least Joseph’s prescience. Goshen allowed the Hebrews to prosper and multiply. They explode from seventy souls to six million by the time Moses and the plagues liberate them from Egypt. Goshen was the first Jewish ghetto, both good and bad for them. It kept them apart from the Egyptians, the perennial “other.” When the new pharaoh resolves to crush the Hebrews generations later, it became easier to slaughter their first born, and round the Hebrews up for slavery. But it also had the effect of preserving Hebrew ethnic purity and cultural integrity so they could ultimately receive the Torah and be forged into a nation. Rashi says we should give Joseph credit for uprooting the Egyptians. By making them “strangers in their own land” Joseph might have been preparing the way for the Hebrews, his brothers, to be aliens, “strangers in a strange land.” If everyone is dislocated then no one will notice the foreign invaders. So in conquering Egypt he makes it more congenial for the Hebrews. In the same way, by making the native Egyptians into slaves, he is giving them a foretaste of what they will eventually do to the Israelites.
Supporting this interpretation is a secret signal in the Hebrew of our verse, Gen 47:21, which reads “וְאֶת־הָעָם הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶעָרִים וְעַד־קָצֵהוּ׃ [v’et-ha’am he’evir oto larim…] Translators struggle with the meaning of the he’evir oto l’arim usually translated as “town by town’“ but more literally implying something like “and [Joseph] moved over [the Egyptians] from their towns. But “evir” contains the same root that gives the Israelites their names, Ivri – Hebrews. It comes from the nickname for Abraham, who is called ‘HaIvri” because he came from “the other side” [of the Eupherates river]” in Genesis 14:13. This makes the translation much more comprehensible. Joseph is literally “hebraicising” the Egyptians, making them into ivri when he uproots them.
Another effect, as you can see from this map, was Goshen is close to Sinai on the well-worn major trade route connecting Asia and Africa. It gave the Hebrews a quick escape route to Sinai, where they eventually attain their freedom, receive the Torah, go on to conquer Canaan, and establish Israel, the nation. In the end, Joseph’s plot against the Egyptians might have been bad for them but good for the Hebrews. So now we can accuse him of abuse of power: it is still magnificently self-serving and by modern standards looks corrupt.
So did the end justify Joseph’s tyrannical means?
The Hebrew Bible is the very origination of the story we celebrate today in all our ideologies. It gave the world the narrative of an oppressed people achieving liberty. Slaves are being ethnically cleansed and suffering inhumane treatment. They yearn for freedom and their own land. A leader on a mission from God and armed with mighty, deadly power, liberates them. It is the very type of our radical heros, the Che Guevaras and Castros and Martin Luther Kings.
The Hebrews bring this story into the world along with a new, radical conception of justice, morality, and value for the inner life of all humans. The Hebrew alphabet gave the world the technology to express the abstract, invisible realm of subjective experience as well as describe an invisible, ubiquitous, almighty and omniscient Deity. These are the foundations of the yearning for Israel’s nationhood and redemption. The Bible is the first profound, expansive expression of these ideals. That code is the scale on which we weigh the justice of Joseph’s actions today. When Joseph ploughs up and overturns the society of the Egyptians, he sowed the field of history to give it birth.
 The technical word for this is deracination, uprooting, commonly deplored as a form of “colonial violence.” Rudabeh Shahid, Joe Turner, “Deprivation of Citizenship as Colonial Violence: Deracination and Dispossession in Assam,” International Political Sociology, Volume 16, Issue 2, June 2022, https://doi.org/10.1093/ips/olac009 or
 Rashi: “He settled the people of one city in another. There was no need for Scripture to state this except for the purpose of telling you something to Joseph’s credit — that he intended thereby to remove a reproach from his brothers because, since the Egyptians were themselves strangers in the various cities where they then dwelt, they could not call them (Joseph’s brethren) strangers.”
 As Chizkuni suggests: “[A]s far as the people were concerned, Joseph transferred them wholesale (to new locations). Once they were settled on soil which had never been theirs, they would be less capable of returning to soil which had in the meantime acquired new lessees. Every Egyptian from now on was going to be a stranger in the land in which he was born, so that it would more difficult for them to point at the Hebrews among them as foreigners.47, 22. רק אדמת הכהנים, “only the soil belonging to the priests (Joseph did not transfer to Pharaoh).” They therefore would not have any reason to start a rebellion against Pharaoh.”
 The tradition holds that the monicker carries theological meaning: because Abraham believed in monotheism while the whole rest of the world believed in the other side, idolatry.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most novelistic passages in the Bible, filled with hidden motives, deep emotion, staged revelations, ambiguous plots and an apparently happy ending. Joseph finally reunites with the eleven brothers in Egypt. He puts them through an elaborately staged torture in Pharaoh’s court, but finally Joseph reveals his true identity and can’t wait to see his father, so he sends his brothers back to fetch him.
The Bible lavishes ten verses on Pharaoh’s and Joseph’s eagerness to get all of the Hebrews to Egypt. They load donkeys and wagons with clothing and goods and gold to bring back the families and entice Joseph’s father, Jacob, now 130 years old, to come too.
Nonetheless, when the brothers return to Canaan and tell Jacob the good news, his “heart goes numb.” The brothers give him CPR with reassurances, Joseph’s fabulous story, and showing him the wealth Joseph sent. When Jacob sees all the stuff and hears their story, his first reaction is, “רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי.”
The Hebrew has so much feeling and hidden meaning it should be a song, maybe a Jewish anthem, and I want to pay it tribute. While the usual translation captures the sense – “Enough! My son Joseph still lives!” – the poetry and depth is lost. The Hebrew eye might immediately notice the repetition of three words for abundance in a row:
ravרַב – is translated as an exclamation “enough,” but it really means much, many, great
ohd, עוֹד – an adverb that seems to modify “live” as in “Joseph still lives” but beyond continuance (still) also implies besides, again, more and directly modifies Joseph as in “more (still, yet) Joseph …”
Yosef –יוֹסֵף – Joseph’s name is prophetic. It means He will add.
Together the three words express “much more greater enlargement.” Jacob’s sudden burst of emotion expresses deep currents.
“Much more greater enlargement!”
Jacob knows the wagons are symbolic of Joseph’s essence and exclaims it with a burst of emotion. His favorite son’s very presence, even as a young boy, seems to make life bigger and more extravagant. Joseph’s lavish coat is just outward expression of his unrestrained charisma. Even his dreams are tinged with megalomania, but he brings his fantastic dreams and those of others to life. Through him, dreams become true. Joseph’s whole life is the story of bursting the bounds of one adversity after another: snake-filled pits, slavery, jail, marooned in a strange country. Everywhere he goes, he expands the borders of life itself. He brings fabulous fantasies into reality. He is the source of survival and abundance for his adopted nation, Egypt, and his own tribe, the Hebrews. The wagonloads of goodies symbolize his lavish success.
Jacob evokes this enlargement of reality that Joseph brings to the world here: “My son adds so much more life.” The father sees the son’s spiritual potential, not the material illusion of the coat that arouses his brothers. Jacob isn’t swayed by the lavish riches in front of him. He’s not toting up the wealth presented to his earthly senses, but what it evokes in his heart. He is rich in material things, but the loss of his beloved son has dug a pit of loss in his soul. And now, by this wagon, he sees instantly Joseph has been miraculously reincarnated.
And then, in case we thought we were just kanoodling around with wordplay, there’s a clincher. When Jacob revives, he is called by his birthname: “the spirit of Jacob revived.” But in the next verse he is “Israel,” the prophetic name he got after winning a wrestling match with an angel. Israel is Jacob’s spirit name, the name of the father of nation that is redeemed – resuscitated – from slavery in Egypt and who also get a lavish gift beckoning them to their destiny. In short, the verse is altogether prophetic, concentrating the whole history of the Hebrews in a few words. Jacob suffers a mini-death and is resurrected as Israel by his son Joseph’s spiritual largesse. He knows the prophecy of exile that awaits his family and their descendants, yet immediately embarks on the fateful journey almost joyfully.
Now if we read Jacob’s cry sideways, the whole verse says,
And he said, ‘Israel to have much more life must go down to my son before I (Israel) die’.
They will go to Egypt to survive the famine as a re-united family, endure a spiritual famine, and emerge as Israel. As Hebrews they all must march through the portal Joseph has opened in history to be resurrected as liberated slaves with the Torah as their fusion engine.
Rashi reads the poetry
Then Rashi tells us there’s yet another secret message encoded in the wagons. The word for wagons – ahgalot – contains a pun for eglot – calves. They may even be etymologically related at a deep level to the primitive root for turning, circling, wheeling. Just as calves cavort by running in circles, wagons run on wheels that turn round and round. In that pun, Jacob sees the last law in the Torah father and son studied before Joseph disappeared: the eglah arufah. If a corpse is found in the wilderness between two cities, how do we assign responsibility for burial and pursuing justice? You can’t just let the corpse lie there. The priests of the closest town must go into the wilderness, sacrifice a calf by breaking its neck, throw it over a cliff, and thus cancel the bill for an unsolved injustice and guilt that would come due to innocent townsfolk. (Deut 21:1-9)
On the surface, Rashi’s neat detective work forms a nice sermon (never mind the anachronism of father and son reading the Torah before Moses brings it down from Sinai. The sages assume that the patriarchs had the Torah). We now see that all the prior stagecraft about loading the eleven wagons with stuff from Egypt fior the brothers to bring back to Jacob in Canaan carried a double message from the prodigal son to grieving father that only the two of them would understand.
Poetry of the Torah and dreams connect the material and spiritual world
The Lubavitcher Rebbe expands our understanding of this ritual. Though he doesn’t refer to this scene with the wagon explicitly, he deepens our understanding of it even more by parsing the meaning of the wagon-calf secret message Joseph sent to Jacob. The elaborate ritual involves sacrificing the calf by severing its neck. Why? The Rebbe calls the neck “the precarious joint.” In the Torah, he notes,
“the neck is a common metaphor for the Holy Temple.” It links “heaven and earth, points of contact between the Creator and His creation. … G-d, who transcends the finite … chose to designate a physical site and structure as the seat of His manifest presence in the world …. The Sanctuary, then, is the ‘neck’ of the world … the juncture that connects its body to its head and channels the flow of consciousness and vitality from the one to the other.”
The unclaimed corpse leaves unattached guilt lying around in a no-man’s land unaccounted for. It is intolerable. The guilt must be expiated. If we cannot determine which city owns it, we sever the calf’s neck to show that the integrity of the Holy Land has been broken and restore it symbolically.
Joseph’s wagon is an invitation to walk through the portal in history. Time collapses as the whole vista of Hebrew destiny appears to Jacob upon seeing the wagon laden with gifts. That walk leads down to Egypt and then up to Sinai and the Torah and eventually the landscape of the Promised Land, an Israel with towns and a system of justice and order and holy calculus so sensitive that an unaccounted for corpse has to be brought back into balance. The Torah is itself the gateway to a whole other consciousness about the world for an entire nation, connecting the material world to the spiritual world. Joseph here is the avatar of this new understanding, introducing dreamspace into reality, enlarging the world through the flow of consciousness and vitality between the different channels in our senses. Reading the Torah as poetry enables us to rehearse, to recapitulate this connection over and over. We are always standing before the wagons, laden with treasures, symbol of resuscitation and reading secret messages, interpretation.
Layers of meanings and cross-references within the text and outside it deepen rather than interfere with one another. The means to deciphering the scene before us is not only through our senses but by short-circuiting our rational, empirical senses. They see only the goodies. We need to open up to the mysteries inside the poetry, the associative, artistic, aesthetic resonance of the images and words acting together. We need to have the Joseph super-power, to see the reality in the dream. Like him, and like Jacob on seeing the wagon, we must create a channel, a precarious joint, from the spiritual realm to the material one. This way of reading life and the Torah and the world before us enlarges everything. The original Hebrew, without vowels or punctuation is Moses’ transcription of God’s one long transcendent utterance atop Sinai and virtually demands that we approach it with openness.
I’m no prophet, but I imagine this is how it must work and why the prophets are such great poets: they are seized by a sudden flooding expansion of their senses, a wheeling, prophetic perception of past and future unfolding in the fateful moment. We can get some small taste of this if we read the poetry in the Hebrew: Israel, summoned by a secret sign from his son, sings a song of extravagant overflowing joy and in that moment can’t wait to go down to Egypt.
The story of the Israelites’ journeys really ends at the finale of the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, Numbers.
The official fifth book of the Torah is the next one, Deuteronomy, but only one thing happens in the entire book. Moses gives a five week long motivational speech to all the Israelites on the Plains of Moab. Then he exits. It’s an Aristotelian tragedy. It has unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.
It’s not like the fifth book doesn’t have plenty of drama. After all, the Israelites are poised to enter Israel. Everything up to this point has been for this moment, to seize the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob more than four centuries ago. The suspense alone is magnificent: the Israelites seem to hold their breath as Moses expends his. Everyone, including Moses himself, knows he is about to die before he enters Israel, because God told him so. In a monumental effort, he gives one of the most inspiring – and certainly the longest – series of motivational speeches in history. For five weeks, he recaps, deepens and enhances the entire teaching from the prior four books. He adds plenty of clarifications, new laws and cosmic views. He achieves soaring heights of inspired poetry and fiery rhetoric that capture the transcendent pathos of the moment. He exhorts, inspires, cajoles, admonishes, rebukes, and threatens. He even breaks into a transcendent song filled with a keening sense that his own lifecis about to end even as Israel is about to be born in full. The official tradition grants that Moses delivered all of the book as a speech that is later transcribed and added to the four prior books.
The Greek name for the book captures this flavor: Deuteronomy – the Second (deutero-) Telling (-nomy). The Recap. Or as we say in the literature game, the denouement, the unknotting.
So the end of the epic of Hebrews for all intents and purposes is the end of the Book of Numbers. The Israelites are encamped at the other side of the Jordan River on the plains of Moab. They know they’re going to war once they swoop down on the Canaanite tribes that live there. But that book lands on what seems a very curious, sputtering choice for a climax. After the story of Creation, the Flood, the romance of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the descent into Egypt, the plagues, the redemption and exodus out of Egypt, the many failures and dramas in the wilderness, Numbers’ final concern seems to be to clear up a technicality left dangling from several chapters ago: the rights of women to inherit land if they marry whomever they choose.
What makes the daughters of Zelophechad and the legal back and forth about their rights worthy of such a premier position in the Torah?
If we dig into the language, we find a joyous, celebratory climax is right there before our eyes. Like the afikomen at the Passover seder, it’s hidden in the beginning but it comes out at the end, a dessert with rewards to the children who discover it. In fact, the word ‘afikomen’ is the perfect analogy: it also comes from Greek (transported into the seder through Aramaic, the language of the Talmud sages). It means ‘dessert’, specifically the dessert at the end of a wedding feast: afi (from epi – ‘on top of’) and komon (from comus – the name of the fertility rite and the pagan god who presides over it). The same name gives us the word ‘comedy’.
Let us unwrap the afikomen from where we discovered it – just where my Pop placed it every year, under the tablecloth – and taste the dessert. I believe it will reveal that the Torah, if we end at the Book of Numbers, is a comedy. Though it may not be apparent at first glance – it’s been a long and rocky road for the Israelites to get to the Promised Land and figure out how to fulfill their deal with God – the final verses make it clear that the Torah has been a love story all along that is now being consummated. It even has a happy ending. In fact, we could call the end of Numbers a comedy – a komus – in the classic tradition. It ends with a merry festival of love.
The Daughters of Zelophechad Inspire Two Revolutions
The people of Israel haven’t even begun to conquer the land of Israel, but they have already divvied it up among the tribes proportionate to their size and then by individual clans by lottery. A good deal of the last portion of Numbers detail the borders of the tribal states and specify the land given to the clans within them. It’s a divinely inspired strategy designed to forestall any territorial squabbles. At the same time, it shows amazing self-confidence: these former slaves have been forged into God’s warriors. They are completely certain of victory in conquering the Canaanites.
But wait. There’s a fly in the ointment. A few chapters ago, the parents of five daughters have died, leaving them with no brothers. They want to keep their father’s inheritance in the family, but women are not allowed to inherit the land. Shouldn’t they have the right to continue their father’s legacy like any other heirs? So they screw up their courage to appeal directly to Moses. Their gumption – and love of the prospective land – is compelling, but Moses is stumped. This is beyond his pay grade. Nothing like this has ever happened, or at least ever before in recorded human history. Prior teachings of the Torah don’t cover it. Moses appeals to God. In a stunning innovation not only of the rules for the Israelites but for all human civilization, God makes an incredible new decree on the spot in the daughters’ favor. These brotherless women, the daughters of Zelophechad, shall inherit their father’s land.
Yet this creates another problem, a loose end which the finale of Numbers dramatizes in its last short chapter. The heads of the daughtes’ tribe, Menashe, now protest to Moses. What happens if these girls marry a guy from another tribe? We’ll lose our lands to them! Not to mention the gerrymandering – the broken patchwork of territorial rights – this will cause. There could be a hostile clan’s reservation right in the middle of our state!
You’ve got a point, Moses agrees. So here’s the solution according to God. He then offers another neat reconciliation:
This is what G-d has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may become the wives of anyone they wish, provided they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribe. (Num 36:7)
But is this really deserving of the closing shot? It all seems like such an anticlimactic technicality, a Talmudic dispute you might hear a couple of millenia later, but not the finale of the Hebrew epic in the 13thc BCE.
The future feminine plural of active creation
This is the second part of the text I quoted above in Hebrew:
….they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribeNumber 36:7
The Bible seems eager for us to look at those two words (in bold) that it repeats. The Hebrew is “tihyeynah l’nashim” (תִּהְיֶינָה לְנָשִׁים). It’s hard to translate perfectly into English. It’s the future feminine plural of the verb ‘to be’. We first encounter the basic verb in the Genesis 1:3 as God declares “’Let there be light’ and there was light!” (יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר׃ ).
Hold that thought, because it reveals a critical shortcoming in most standard translations.
Most translations of our repeated phrase fold it into the passive or at least ambiguous sense of “becoming wives” like this comon mis-translation of the Hebrew above: “They may become the wives of anyone they wish, provided they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribe.”
But the verb is the future feminine plural of active creation. The daughters don’t just become wives, they now get to choose to make themselves wives, to wed by their own volition.
The next verse of Torah gives God’s reasoning. Most translations separate it out as a standalone declaration:
The inheritance of the Children of Israel is not to go ‘round from tribe to tribe… (Num 36:7)
But this is also a mis-translation. This rationale sounds like a command. Don’t make a mishmash of tribal boundaries through intermarriage. Wait. In one breath the daughters are told they can choose to wed anyone they wish, and in the next that it has to be a man from their own tribe?
But there’s a sneaky “and” (vav) at the beginning of that line, conjoining its logic to the prior verse. It is still ambiguous whether this makes it an imperative – Andmarry in your tribe! – or a conditional. Make yourselves wives of anyone you love; wed in your tribe and you inherit the land.
The repetition of the words tihyeynah l’nashim suggests there are two separate possibilities, a choice the consequences of which this next line spells out. Choose anyone you wish from any tribe, but only if you marry intra-tribally (the technical term is endogamy) do you keep your inheritance.
This more liberating reading is confirmed in our celebration called Tu B’Av (the 15th of the month of Av) when we are commanded to be joyous, perhaps as a tonic to the deepest day of mourning six days prior, Tisha B’Av (the 9th). The sages tells us that the reason for joy is that it’s the exact date of this ruling (15th of Av, 1273 bce), “when tribes were permitted to intermarry.”
So a better reading of the two verses, putting it all together, would be this:
Women should wed anyone who pleases them, but if they want inherit the land, they should choose a husband from their own tribe so land doesn’t circulate from tribe to tribe
Yes, God told them in a revolutionary moment, women deserve their father’s inheritance. And now, perhaps even more monumentally, God reveals to them and the world that women can wed whomever they please, from any tribe. But to balance it all, in exchange for your newfound freedom, He says, I gotta restrict the other revolutionary liberty I gave you (to inherit the land) so that you get it only if you choose to wed someone from your own tribe. Otherwise, the inheritance of the children of Israel will circle from tribe to tribe, mash up the neat map we just drew, and our peaceful utopia will be doomed before we even get there.
The deepest love
If this is a perfectly logical rationale, the next line is soul music. In the next breath, the same verse, God then explains – or mandates – the deeper spiritual force behind His compromise between love and inheritance:
“…because each Israelite must cling to the land of the tribe of his father.”  (Num 36:7)
The text’s word for ‘cling’, or the more antic ‘cleave’ – d-b-k, devek – is the same word Torah uses for other transcendent attachments, good and bad. It’s the same word for the God-given mystical connection between a man and his wife in Genesis. It describes Shechem’s deep, illicit lust for Dinah and also how persistent the plagues against the Israelites were, clinging to them. Later it applies to the deepest embrace between the Israelites and God. “You must cling to Him, for He is your life.” In later Jewish tradition it inspires the deep mysticism of devekus. But here it’s the engine of a love triangle: the Israelites love of Israel equals the love between man and woman equals the love between us and God.
And as if winking at us the Torah confirm this reading a few lines later. There are those same words bracketing this end of this story – tihyeynah … l’nashim:
The verse says, “They chose (Tihyeynah )- Mahla, Tirtza, Hogla, Milka and Noa the daughters of Zelohechad”– the Torah names them here again to honor their importance – “to their cousins to be wives (lenashim).” The sages say Moses wasn’t telling them what to choose, but offering good advice from God. They heeded Him.
Having motivated two earthshattering revolutions through their chutzpah, they now show their modest wisdom. They choose to wed their cousins “so that their inheritance went along with the tribe of the clan of their father” (Num 36:12). It’s a great call. They get to have their wedding cake and eat it too.
With such a satisfactory wrap up, Numbers is quick to close the curtain with a swift last line: “These are the commandments and the laws that God commanded by the hand of Moses to the Children of Israel, in the Plains of Moab, by Jordan-Jericho.” (Num 36:13) Good show. Cue the soaring happy score.
We usually read the final weekly reading of Numbers, Masei, along with the one before, Matot. Together they create the longest reading of the year. The significance of the climax to Numbers may slide by us in the rush to get through the reading and as we get tangled in the technicalities of the revolution in marriage laws. The commentary is silent mostly about the startling fact that we’ve just heard the announcement of an unprecedentedly massive wedding, a five-fold celebration of women choosing their own mates. This even beats Shakespeare’s record in his comedy As You Like It, which famously ends with four simultaneous weddings.
Once we join the party, the message for the sweep of the epic narrative of the Hebrews starts getting deeper and clearer. It is really a celebration of the entire joyous covenant of the Torah, its climax. So let’s swiftly recap that epic in the light cast back by this happy moment.
Israel preserved its identity since the promise to Abraham through slavery in Egypt. They hear God pronounce His pact with them, newly-liberated slaves, on Sinai. They then get it in writing from Moses. It includes a detailed constitution, a set of laws for establishing a prospective heaven on Earth in the union of the people and land of Israel. They should have been eager to rush across the Red Sea and Sinai to seize their destiny, but they are not up to it. They fail every which way imaginable: through idolatry, cowardice, doubt, backsliding, violence, rebellion, complaining, lawlessness, debauchery, ambition, treason. Others have peeled away to return to Egypt. Some disappeared through assimilation with pagans. Some withered by wandering off in the desert. By far, God’s many plagues, afflictions, earthquakes, fire and snakes have eliminated the bulk of the spiritually weak, the rebels, the sinners and the merely conflicted. Their failures doom them to wander 40 years in the wilderness until the entire generation of former slaves die out. Even at the last moment, Moses faces two breakaway tribes, Reuben and Gad. They want to take the fat, fertile Moabite territory on the other side of Jordan, outside the borders of Israel proper. Moses first loses his temper when he hears their request. He compares them to the spies whose cowardly refusal to take Israel when they had the chance was the immediate cause of their wandering. But then Moses relents. Maybe he thought it would be better to let them pursue their corrosive greed outside of the utopia now rather than risk them rotting the future Israel from the inside, spiritually. Even so, to make sure they’re not just dodging the draft for the impending war against the Canaanites, he cuts a deal with them. He demands that they fight with their brethren before they take up residence across the border, build their cities and graze their cattle. Reuven and Gad readily agree. In fact, they’ll serve as shock troops, the most daring of the warriors. They’ll win the war and only then return to occupy their fat Transjordan lands. Are they loyalists who can’t resist their materialism or are they mercenaries? No matter. Moses has made the final selection of the spiritually fittest.
The only Israelites left are a new generation of fearsome, enspirited warriors. They’ve defeated the Sihon and Og, the Bashan, the Ammonites. They’ve just overcome the Moabite’s evil prophecy with superior God prophecy. They then completely decimate the even stronger Midianites for trying to seduce their whole nation. They leave almost nothing alive, taking only the cattle, gold and remaining virgins as booty. Then they carve up the land of Israel as if the outcome is assured, though they haven’t yet stepped foot in it.
In short, these vital Israelites are about to take, in the very Biblical sense, Israel. Israel the people are about to consummate their long-forestalled, pent-up ecstatic promised union with Israel the land. It’s a magnificent climax.
Jewish mystical tradition and literature overflow with the metaphor of groom and bride in this union between the people and the land. They interpenetrate and fertilize each other. They are meant to cleave to each other, just as bride and groom in the three-way union of man and wife with God as the not-so-silent partner. History proves the mysticism is real. When Jews occupy the land, it is fertile. Josephus in 75 CE testified to Israel’s abundance before the Romans destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews. To humiliate them, the Romans call it Palestine after the Jews’ bitter enemies the Philistines. The land never recovers for almost two thousand years. Empire after empire, Rome, Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, Ottomans, England – all try and fail to make it anything less than desolate. Ramban (1194-1270), flees Spain for the Land of Israel. In Acco, he couldn’t even find nine other Jews to pray with. He wrote to his son, “Many are Israel’s forsaken places, and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all.” He prophesied that Israel will remain desolate until the Jewish reoccupy the land.
Riding on horseback through what is now is the fertile Jezreel Valley in 1867, Mark Twain observed, “There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent – not for 30 miles in either direction.” He calls it “the curse of a Deity… that has ruined its fields and fettered its energies. …Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.”
Travel to Israel today and you can see immediately the instantiation of the metaphysical inter-fertilization of people and land both named Israel. When I last visited with my brother and sister, we traveled up and along the middle and northern borders – along the territory known as the West Bank, up north along Lebanon and Syria. Driving around and up the hairpin steepness of two lush mountains in Golan, a sudden gap opened in front of us. It was a vista of a forsaken, arid landscape in the distance, framed by green
“What’s that?” my sister asked, startled by the contrast.
“It looks dead.”
When the Jews are absent from Israel, the land suffers. Where they go, the land blossoms. Yes, there are exceptions. The territories Reuven and Gad bargained for, now Jordan, are still mostly lush, though I doubt anyone there still calls themselves a child of Israel. They still make wonderful wine in the Bekaa valley (mentioned in the Talmud) of southern Lebanon. Yes, there are mundane explanations for Israel’s fertility: Wealth, education, pent-up historical yearning, Western science and technology, sheer energy. But the mundane meets the miraculous halfway and the former disguises the latter from our dim mortal sight.
The Jews of Israel today are a testament to this mystically fertile union, especially after many of their great grandfathers shriveled (physically) in the shtetls of Europe before being incinerated. Brown, robust, social. Almost every man and woman serves in the military when they are 18. Their voices have music in them. In the last worldwide survey, Israel is one of the top countries for self-reported happiness despite the fact they’re surrounded by enemies, neighbors regularly pledge to eliminate them (the Palestinians and Iranians), and they’re despised by many nations of the world who should know better.
So why end with these women who have been given the new right to marry for love? Because their wedding is neither by force nor convenience. They’ve been given the Divine right to choose to marry whomever they wish, whoever they love – men who “find grace in their eyes” as the Hebrew literally says. They have expanded the domain of human joy and freedom by actively choosing their own paths. The daily ubiquitous miracles we mistake for the coincidences of material reality require us to meet divine will at least halfway on the road to fulfilling it.We’re not in Egypt anymore. we’re free to choose and act. You can’t just lay about and huddle in your hovel and wait for the hand of the Almighty to intervene. After all, He sent you a raft, a rowboat and a helicopter. You have to choose to take the ride. Israel the nation is now, finally, stepping into the boat. Tihyeynah.
What is a more fitting, complete ending to our epic adventure of the Hebrews than a five-fold wedding that we commemorate for all time? We celebrate it like that other, best of all liberation meals, the Passover seder. We end with the special dessert that, in its very name, celebrates the fertile conjugation of wife, husband and God through their separate deliberate acts of choosing, creation. It was set aside from the beginning only to be fulfilled now. It’s the Torah’s afikomon.
Tihyeynah. The future feminine plural. The Torah doesn’t have to tell us how the comedy ends. The daughters lived happily ever after. After all, this is true love.
– David Porush
Aug 1, 2022
I am indebted to my study mates in our Friday Noon Parsha Shmooze for delving this reading of Matot-Masei with me: Nicolas Cruz, Ron Kardos, Bobby Lent, and Brad Diller. I am also indebted to Rabbi Yossi Marcus for his Shabbos drash on the significance of Aaron’s yahrzeit being mentioned here out of place (it’s the 15th of Av; Aaron dies on the 1st). Aaron earns the only yahrzeit date explicitly mentioned in Torah. It comes to teach us the fundamental aspect of love for our fellow humans suffused in the Torah through Aaron. Finally, I am indebted to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman for confirming the meaning of the key word here – t’hiyeynah – as the future feminine plural of “to be,” and even more so for responding positively to this particular reading of the end of Numbers as a comedy.
 As Lord Byron quipped, “All tragedies are finished by a death. All comedies are ended by a marriage .” Most Shakespearean comedies end with a wedding: The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, many others. As You Like It ends with four weddings.
Going further back, we see the modern wedding comedy as a civilized version of its primitve pagan roots. The genre of comedy originated in ancient Greece as Dionysian fertility revelries. Komus was the Greek god of merrymaking who brought wine to his father, Dionysus, for his infamous parties. The annual spring rituals of komus weren’t so much weddings as festive orgies of appetite.
 The Contemporary Torah, Jewish Publication Society, 2006.
Rabban Simon b. Gamaliel said: “Never was there any more joyous festival than the fifteenth of Ab and on the Day of Atonement, etc.” It is readily understood why the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the second tables of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the fifteenth of Ab be a day of rejoicing? “Because,” said R. Judah in the name of Samuel, “on that day the members of the different tribes were permitted to intermarry.” What passage did they interpret to prove this? (Num. 36, 6) [Ein Yaakov (Glick Edition), Taanit 4:11]
 In fact, Ramban berates Rambam for not listing the imperative for Jews to “cling to the land” as one of Rambam’s 613.
 The word is a contranym; it means two opposite things at the same time. Cleave could imply “to bind or unite”, or it could mean “to sever completely, (as with a cleaver).” The implication is that two entities have a deeper wholeness or unity.
 There’s another whole drash to be written about the connecting theme in Matot-Masei of willful, feminine choice, encoded in the verb of “to be.” This one is the contrast between the daughters of Zelophechad and the evil choice of the Midianite women to seduce the men of Israel: The consequence of their debased choice is that all the women are slaughtered and the virgin daughters become booty בָּזָז׃. “The Israelites seized the women of the Midianites and their children and all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth as booty. [Num 31:9]… “Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses yells at them: “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who made it happen הָיוּ to seduce the sons of Israel to the bidding of Balaam, to trespass against HaShem in the matter of Peor, so that G-d’s community was struck by the plague.
 From the Kabbalistic tradition: “Behold the holy Torah and Eretz Yisrael have a unique relationship. So too the Jewish people have a unique deep spiritual relationship to the land of Israel. This can be seen from the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 48) dividing up the land between the twelve tribes, granting each tribe the parcel of land best suited for its needs. This was accomplished by each tribe bordering the place from where the soul of his tribe emanates from. Thus each mitzvah performed in Eretz Yisrael ascends and adorns each of the borders in relationship to the soul of each tribe. In this way, the completeness of the soul is dependent upon which portion of land it dwells in. And the fulfillment of the land is dependent upon the souls that dwell there in accordance with its existence. The essence of this is that Zion is the point of the original creation (Gemara Yoma 54b) For, from that point the rest of the world unfolded. That point of course is associated with the Shechina.” Chabad https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380682/jewish/A-Land-for-Every-Nation-21.htm
Also Kabbalah: “The land of Israel and its cities also represent a sexual aspect. The first sin caused a split between the masculine principle of the divine powers (symbolized by the sefirah of Glory or Foundation) and the feminine principle (symbolized by Kingship). The coupling of the two principles is already symbolized in early Kabbalah by the unification of “Zion” (Glory or Foundation) and “Jerusalem” (Kingship). Since the righteous person similarly is symbolized by the sefirah of Foundation, the sexual aspect is also reflected in the fact that only perfectly righteous people can possess the land.” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mystical-israel/
 “These two Galilees, of so great largeness, and encompassed with so many nations of foreigners, have been always able to make a strong resistance on all occasions of war; for the Galileans are inured to war from their infancy, and have been always very numerous; nor hath the country been ever destitute of men of courage, or wanted a numerous set of them: for their soil is universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts, insomuch that it invites the most slothful to take pains in its cultivation, by its fruitfulness; accordingly it is all cultivated by its inhabitants, and no part of it lies idle. Moreover, the cities lie here very thick, and the very many villages there are here are every where so full of people, by the richness of their soil, that the very least of them contain above fifteen thousand inhabitants.” Note how Josephus connects the robustness of the warriors and their dauntless spirit with the fertility of their land. Josephus, The Book of Wars transl. by William Whiston, (London: 1737) 3, 3:2
“Calculus… ironically the word means ‘pebble’” – Herman Wouk, The Language God Talks (2010)
You come on a small, still pond in a clearing in the woods. Someone just tossed a pebble into it seconds ago, but now they’re gone. You can tell because waves ripple out from where it plopped in. You watch as the rings radiate out to reach every point in the pond.
Imagine now that you arrived just after two pebbles dropped into the pond. You can tell where they went in by tracing the two concentric patterns back to their two centers. Then you notice that the two patterns collide. Looking closely, some waves add their energy to each other to make bigger waves with higher troughs and crests. Some waves cancel each other, making smaller waves or even points of calm water. As the waves radiate out, the whole pond now shows that two pebbles dropped in.
If you were clever, it might be possible to look at any smaller section of the pond, even without looking at the whole, and reconstruct the fact that two pebbles dropped in. You might even be able to deduce more information, like how heavy the pebbles were, how far away from each other they dropped or even how soon the second pebble hit after the first.
Now imagine thousands of pebbles dropped in the pond. Every part of the pond would register every dropped pebble in an extremely complex array of waves. Maybe it would take a super-computer to tell how many pebbles, where and when they were dropped, etc., but the surface of every part of the pond, however far away from the original pebbles, registers all the information about them. You could read any part of the surface of the pond and it would tell a story about the original events, even though you weren’t there to see the pebbles enter the water.
Without getting too deep into the technicalities (laser beams are split and recorded after they bounce off an image) making a hologram uses the same phenomenon as the pebbles in the pond: a wave interference pattern (see this at “Explain That Stuff”). The “holo” in hologram refers to the whole image it projects.
It is a curiosity of a hologram that if you cut out a tiny piece of the original hologram and shine a laser through it, it would display the whole image, if in lower resolution and smaller. So a hologram is also holistic because every part, however small, registers and represents the whole, just like you could (theoretically) look at a small section of the pond at its edge and reconstruct where, how many, and when the pebbles dropped.
Like the surface of the pond, every point of a hologram contains a trace of the whole. Every point resonates echoes the original events (the object on which the laser shone; pebbles dropping) that created the text (waves forming an interference pattern on the medium of a holographic plate or the pond’s surface). Every point also resonates with every other. It is a whole – (“holo”) – writing or record (“gram”). We can read the text of the pond to tell what happened before we got there.
The hologram is a great metaphor not only for reading a literary text but for reading the cosmos as a hologram. A holistic approach means you cannot fully understand any part of something without seeing the whole and vice versa. Holistic thinking is a compelling approach to the world. Dissect a frog as much as you want, but it won’t explain why it jumps at a fly. You might even kill the essence of the thing you’re after.
We know instinctively, especially when we think of living beings that somehow the whole has an identity and integrity that no part in itself can describe on its own. Holistic healing treats the whole person because it assumes that every organ, every cell, is intimately connected to every other. Further, it knows the body and the mind, maybe even the personality and spirit are all connected. Your dynamic habits and experiences affect the physical part of your body. Your fingernails and hair say something about your diet. An examination of your eye could tell the opthamologist that something is wrong with the liver or heart. And it is a cliche that your attitude towards life affects your health. In turn, the health of every individual organ can affect and be affected by every other. Holism gives us a more powerful and intuitively appealing way of looking at a very complex phenomenon or system than by just picking it apart and analyzing its components
One scientific theory applies this concept to the whole cosmos. David Bohm, an associate of Einstein’s at Princeton in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was one of the most significant physicists of the twentieth century. Based on his work on quantum waves, he proposed a view of the entire universe as an interconnected whole. In his view, the universe has an explicitorder we can see and intuit, and a deeper level of reality, a hidden implicit order that underlies it and ties it all together, what he called “the Holographic Universe.”
An associate of Bohm’s, neuroscientist Karl Pribram, speculated that the brain also worked like a hologram. As he put it, the brain was “holonomic.” When you see something new or feel a great emotion, it stimulates waves of neural impulses. Even the firing of a single neuron propagates waves of neuro-electrical impulses across the whole brain, just as waves from pebbles dropped in a pond.
If you look at videos of lightning storms in the upper atmosphere as seen from space, they seem to dance across vast regions as if they were in tune to some secret music. The entire atmosphere is an interconnected ecosystem. Standing on the ground and watching a single bolt of lightning gives you no clue to this implicate order in the sky.
Reading the Bible as a hologram
The Hebrew Bible records an experience just like this. An entire nation of Hebrews, six hundred thousand men and their wives, children and parents, flee slavery in Egypt to the desert. Moses leads them to Mount Sinai. They huddle around its base as he warns them of an awesome event about to happen. Then lightning flashes, thunder rumbles. A prolonged incomprehensible sound blasts out, growing louder. God is talking. The Hebrews are overwhelmed. They can’t comprehend what they hear and they’re afraid the unprecedented show will kill them.
They ask Moses to intercede. He goes up the mountain and returns forty days later with a transcript of what God wanted them to hear, written in the brand-new medium of the phonetic alphabet. Later, according to some interpretations, Moses writes more extensively about what God told and continues to tell him. The result is the Bible, the Five Books of Moses, the Torah.
God’s performance atop the mountain is transient and long gone. Jews have a national memory of the event. They are the only people who claim a deity spoke to them en masse and they survived. They have a collective national memory of a story that would be impossible to falsify. Did millions of people conspire to make it up and then agree that this thing really happened? Would Moses say this happened to them, and they just don’t remember? Would he say it DID happen and their folks just forgot to tell you about it or covered up the source of your national identity and purpose? So the only way to fully understand the Torah is to see it as an accurate record – an autobiography – of its birth, but how? If we take its testimony seriously, the Bible obliges us to understand what God meant us to hear. However, the text is only the trace, the transcript, of this incomprehensible event: the prolonged blast of a divine voice.
So this singularity – the fancy word is theophany – requires a singular approach to reading. For this I recruit the hologram. A holographic approach to reading assumes that the Torah is the dictation of a single divine Author. The hologram models how to read a text that traces an event that happened before we got there but where every part of the text is implicated with every other and with the original event like pebbles in a pond. The minutest part, a single word, letter, the embellishments on a letter – even the silent spaces between the words – represent and register and resonate with the whole (as I show in various parshas such as Chukat, Vayigash, Vayikra, Noah, Emor and elsewhere). Every jot sings the theme of a larger song, however softly and faintly. The text is an interference – or better yet an interconnection – pattern, intensely dynamic, complex hyper-inter-textual.
If the waves on the surface of the pond comprise the text, the pebbles are the writing instrument or channel used by an “author” or actor to transmit his or her intentions. But as we come on the rippling pond in the glade in the woods, we come after the original event is long over, and different readers will have different interpretations. Some deny there was ever a girl in the glade dropping pebbles in a pond. A naive explorer might come on the pond, look at the complex interference pattern the pebbles caused, and say, “Whoah, windy day.” He sees only a chaos of waves and has no idea that someone dropped a bunch of pebbles into the water before he got there. A skeptic might say, “You’ve been staring at the pond too long. You’re imagining things.” The cynic has a completely alternative explanation. He sees the complexity of the waves but says, “It’s just a natural coincidence.”
If we believe we know someone plopped pebbles into the water before we arrived, that leaves us with the challenge of reconstructing the hologram, reading the dynamic traces of the original act and reconstructing what happened. After all, pebbles and waves are two completely different media, one the cause, the other the effect. No number of waves in water will ever form themselves back into the original pebbles that caused them. But the clues are there. There’s enough information to of it. The waves present a mystery. Who was the original pebble-dropper? Why’d she do it in the first place? Was she just passing the time idly amusing herself? Was she trying to achieve something?
Reading in the hologram and Jewish tradition
This approach to reading the Torah as a trace or transcript has a long provenance. The great medieval sage Rambam (1138–1204) expressed it as one of his “Thirteen Principles of Faith”:
We believe that the entire Torah in our possession was given [to us] by the Almighty through Moshe Our Teacher by means of the medium we metaphorically call “speech.” No one knows the real nature of this communication except Moshe, to whom it was transmitted. He was like a scribe receiving dictation. He wrote the history, the stories, and the commandments. Therefore he is called “[the] inscriber.”There is no difference between the [the apparently trivial and most profound verses]. For it is all from God; it is all God’s perfect Torah, pure, holy and true.
Rambam is very clear. The Torah is the transcript of a dictation. It is always already a translated version of an original utterance and intention. As A.J. Heschel put it, the Torah from Moses is already a “midrash,” literally “from the word,” a commentary. Traditional Jewish interpretations call themselves mishnehs – “repetitions”.
So during their chat atop Sinai, when Moses took God’s dictation, was he fast enough to write every word? Was the new medium of the phonetic alphabet agile enough to capture everything? Did it capture more than we could parse by the fact it had no vowels and so any string of consonants could be parsed multiple ways? Did God want everything He said written, or were there elaborations, digressions, and occult and secret revelations? The Jewish tradition is built on this inevitable fact. Midrash encompasses the entire Jewish interpretive tradition since Sinai, including the Mishnah (brought down from Oral Law into written form in the second century CE), Gemara (which with Mishna forms the Talmud), and the almost two millenia of ongoing commentary, debate, legends, exemplars, parables, and case law conducted across time, space and cultures since then.
Hologram and spirituality
The approach to Torah as a hologram also has a deeper spiritual dimension. An essential Jewish belief is the oneness of God and the unity of the cosmos He created. God did not perform His blast, nor create the universe, and then disappear or stand idly by to admire it work. His involvement in Creation is intimate and continues and compels at least acknowledgement, if not gratitude. The holistic approach to reading mirrors these beliefs.
The final more mystical concept is the congruence of the physical universe and the Torah. In Kabbalah, Torah is the cosmic cookbook. God wrote it before He brought the world into being. He consulted its recipe to recite the words that “He spoke” (Vayomer Elohim) to create light, sky, earth, and life. A kabbalistic tradition suggests that the written letters formed God’s script and were (it’s too tempting to say literally) the instruments of Creation. It demands an approach that transcends our usual ideas of reading and interpreting to hint, however faintly, at a divine creativity implicit in every word, letter, flourish and even silence.
The Hebrew Bible invents the idea that we are responsible for what we say.
There’s a story in the heart of the Hebrew Bible about a man who cursed God and is stoned to death for his crime.
And a son of an Israelite woman went out – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – into the midst of the children of Israel and fought in the camp, this son of an Israelite woman with a son of Israel. And the son of the Israelite woman cursed the Name and he made light [of It]. And they brought him to Moses. And the name of his mother was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan.And they placed him in prison until it became clear to them what God would say. And God said to Moses, “Take the blasphemer out of the camp and all who heard him lay hands on his head – and then the whole congregation – stone him.Then speak to the children of Israel saying, ‘Everyone who profanes the Divine bears the guilt and who curses the Name of God shall absolutely die. The assembly should surely stone him, the stranger and the native who curses the Name shall die.’ – Lev 24:10-16
There are many striking bits about this story, but one of the things that gets our attention is that it interrupts a long unbroken march of dos and don’ts. Since the beginning of Leviticus, there are about 200 new commandments plus restatements of prior ones, almost a third of the 613 total in the Torah. If we plot their distribution, that string of commandments rise as a wave that crests and breaks on this story. Counting by weekly readings, the mitzvah ticker goes:
Tazria + Metzora 18
Acharei Mot 30
Emor (this parsha) 56
Afterwards the wave ebbs until the end of Leviticus:
The first parsha of the next book, Numbers, has 0!
So what’s this story doing here? It clearly comes to tell us the consequences of violating one of the injunctions that preceded it, but why this one? Why does the wave climax here? What is the arc of the text trying to tell us with this intrusion? Clearly the Torah is sending up a flare, signaling something dramatic and particular, begging us to search what’s under its sudden glare, but what?
At first glance the episode seems like just a jarring cautionary tale. It even seems to confirm the worst prejudices of the popular atheistic notion that a set of different authors threw a bunch of stuff into an incoherent hodge-podge over centuries for varying political reasons.
Rather what we find on closer inspection is a complexly-plotted landscape – a purposeful terraforming – of words about words, about speech and its consequences illustrating a revolutionary concept fundamental to Judaism’s mission to sanctify the world, to make it holy and elevate it through our actions.
The key to unlocking the passage lies in a game it plays with the identity of the principal character, the anonymous blasphemer.
The opening verses tell us his father is Egyptian and his mother is an Israelite woman, mentioning the fact an extraordinary three times in a row. Then it names her, Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. But the son himself remains unnamed except as the Israelite woman’s son. Why bother with his mother’s name and not his? Why does it specify that his father was Egyptian? Is the Torah just showing off its recall of ancient details to prove its authenticity? Maybe it doesn’t want to memorialize him, just as media today refuse to name mass murderers for fear copycats will also try to graffiti themselves on the monuments of history.
But millenia of commentary leads us to a more camouflaged trail. Besides filling in the entire backstory, it tells us that the name of the mother is really a slur inside a pun, an insulting nickname. She was “completely (shlomit) the daughter (bat) of words (divrei).” She’s a yenta, a compulsive talker. She’s got loose lips and, by implication, loose morals. After all, she married an Egyptian, fathered his wayward son and dragged them both into exile with the Israelites. She’s a border-crosser, a searcher, an escapee, and not in a good way. I imagine a cartoon character with a big purse, loud polka dot dress, red high heels, crazy sunglasses, too-red lips, too much rouge, big hair and a big hat. Her voice pierces your peace and her words are a toxic cloud of narishkeit – foolishness – in your space. At very best, she’s a ridiculous gossip and extrovert.
At worst, though, her promiscuity can destroy the harmony of your tribe, your camp, your community, your world. That we know her name reminds us of another great incongruous aside in the Torah (back in Vayikra, Gen 36:24)) about Anah – the one who bred the first mule on Earth, the bastard product of incest from the tribe of Seir with whom Esau’s tribe dwells and intermarries. Singled out, we get a shudder of apprehension, an indictment: the bastard Anah, son of debasement, experiments out there in the wasteland to introduce something corrupt and unnatural into the world. The effect of being singled out by name, Shlomit bat Divri, has the same effect. Her promiscuity threatens something fundamental to the order of the cosmos.
As any good parenting book will tell you, of course her son cannot control his behavior. Of course he picks a fight. Of course he loosens his tongue to curse God. And of course he ends up on death row.
The speech act revolution
This episode encapsulates in a few short lines an entire moral philosophy of justice and responsibility that is worthy of a book on its own. The son may be a product of his environment, but he is still responsible for his actions. This psychosocial philosophy of the Bible leads the way for a whole nation of refugee slaves to escape oppression and debasement, collectively and individually. The Hebrews could have embraced their victimhood as the core of their ethnic identity. Instead, they take the cure, a redemptive, if harsh, contract which puts us on the hook for our own behaviors. Even if others oppress us, even if we had a bad upbringing and terrible role models and corrupting parents, we’re accountable. However piteous, explanations are not excuses.
Again, though, why is this act among the hundreds of other possible violations in the string of laws in Leviticus the only one singled out for its own anecdote?
The answer lies in the dramatic innovation in the history of human culture it marks: in addition to obvious crimes like murder, adultery and theft, we are now also accountable even – maybe especially – for what comes out of our mouths.
Speech lies at the dramatic boundary between the inner, silent, private realm of our self and the emission, the voice or noise (the Hebrew word is the same: kol) that broadcasts what’s in there. Speech converts what we say to ourselves silently to what we say out loud to others. As the Twitter generation knows too well, it influences. It’s a form of influenza, a virus, a cultural flu. As William Burroughs quipped , “Language is a virus from outer space.” Laurie Anderson enshrined the blurb in song. Words have the extraterrestrial power to corrupt and subvert the health of the body politic. So first those who heard lay their hands on his head to indict him and, perhaps, like the leaning on the Yom Kippur goat, to cleanse themselves of any pollution from hearing his blasphemy. Then “all the people” stone him to death.
What capital crime, exactly, did our blasphemer commit to deserve the death penalty?
He violated the Third Commandment.
The revolution pivots on a word with a life of its own
As I noted earlier, in addition to all the new commandments that build to a wave that crests at this story, there are re-statements of previous ones, including the Third of the Ten Commandments. Here is its original, when God Himself announces it to all the Israelites at Sinai:
You shall not profane My holy name that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I HaShem who sanctify you. – Lev 22:32
Both latter versions add the word chalal – “profane.” This is not casual poetic license nor editorial sloppiness. Rather the word traces an arc of meaning across the text of the Five Books of Moses that is so intentional and yet so hidden that it suggests an author of sublime subtlety.
Words with the root letters chet-lamed-lamed appear only five times prior in all of Torah, always to describe specific acts of profanity: illicit sex; desecration of the altar and of the Sabbath; eating the Temple sacrifices at the wrong times; and sacrificing your children to Moloch.
Then something extraordinary happens: the word explodes, rat-a-tat-tat, fifteen times in quick succession like firecrackers ignited on a string or drums accompanying the larger theme: the peaking of the “mitzvah ticker” on the run up to this anecdote.
Afterwards, just as remarkably, the word goes silent, disappears. We hear its muted echo in the re-iteration of the blasphemer’s fatal act – אֶת־הַשֵּׁם וַיקַלֵּל – et haShem l’hitkalal – “the Name he belittled” (Lev 24:10), a kuf (ק) substituting for the chet (ח). Is “kalal” a pun or intentional echo of the more serious “chalal”? In any case the word is subsiding, changing.
When it re-emerges, it is transformed mysteriously into something else entirely: a corpse of a particular kind.
All Hebrew words that share the three-letter root of chalal, even those that enter the lexicon later, imply something missing, a penetration or, more abstractly, an absence or subtraction that breaks the continuous integrity of something. These include the words for “hole,” the verb “to bore” as in boring a hole; a flute – a simple piece of wood that is hollow through its axis (core) and then bored with smaller holes in a line along its surface; violation; profane, corrupt or compromised; and even void or empty space. In this context, how does chalal as “transgressive speech” relate to piercing, penetrating?
I suggest it’s like this: Words come out of your mouth, the literal anatomical portal between inside and outside your body. More symbolically, speech crosses ethical and spiritual boundaries as well. Words bore a hole through the monumental wall between inner consciousness, the realm of private thought, and public pronouncement, the outer manifestation of our will and desire. Speech is deliberate, intentional. It is the active manifestation – the ex pression, the forceful outing – of our free will. While we are not usually held accountable in Judaism for our inner urges and impulses, we are always responsible for their active manifestations and their consequences. The harlot in general allows herself to be ‘penetrated’ licentiously, and by doing so she pierces the sanctity of Israel. Shelomit bat Divri is (at very least) promiscuous in her words and perhaps in other kind of acts as well. After all, she married an Egyptian. Her son is her inevitable heir, her expression in both the most literal and the spiritual genetic senses. His genealogy puts him on the border between Egypt and Israel, between inside the tribe of Dan and outside it. In turn, according to the sages, this is the source of his grievance: the tribe denies him a share in the territory they will inherit. This leads him to pick a fight and then curse God. Of course his fate is to become an anonymous blasphemer subject to capital punishment.
This is the founding principle of Torah and the punchline, or at least the pivot, in our quest for how the word chalal reveals the Torah’s intention. We are responsible for what we say to the uttermost extent up to and including capital punishment for profanity, just as we are for any of our other actions. In fact, the very name of the parsha Emor is named “speak.” As the tolling of commandments peaks in it, it seems to tell us that speech act is the paradigmatic act marking our choices between sacred and profane. Speech in all its ordinariness – as much or more than sex or violence – demonstrates our free will, our choices between good and evil. We can profane God’s name – chilul haShem – or sanctify It – Kiddush HaShem.
This marks one of the Torah’s profound revolutions, a new concept on the stage of human culture. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, there is no record in ancient cultures of any law against blasphemy, let alone libel, slander or defamation., I imagine one did have to tread carefully about speaking against a god-king in Sumer, Akkadia or Egypt, and surely all people have always been sensitive to what others say about them (what’s more human than curses or insults leading to blows?). Sanctioning speech as a matter of law is part of the larger transformation of humanity brought by Torah as the first document written in the phonetic alphabet. The twenty-two signs of the Hebrew alphabet utterly reshaped culture. It enabled anything that could be spoken to become permanent, transcribed, documented in writing. It’s inevitable that the nation constituted in this new communications medium are now responsible for their words.
So the Torah brings this little set piece about profane speech to showcase and enshrine its revolution.
The coda to the story
From this moment onwards the word chalal is transformed: it comes to means a corpse that has been murdered by a penetrating wound (e.g., stabbing, piercing with an arrow). It’s almost as if the body of the blaspheming son remains as a testament to the crime, for this is a special case of a corpse. The more general corpse is called a nefesh (soul) or a mat (dead one). The chalal is equated with the impurity of death, in other words, with the violation of life/spirit/soul itself, for it also is used to describe the priest who is compromised – whose holiness is pierced – by contact with this kind of corpse.
If we follow the whole journey of the word chalal through the books of the Torah, it begins by meaning general profanation or grievous sinning, comes to mean blasphemy in particular, and ends by being equated with death of the body and soul at once. As the story tells us, “He [the profaner] shall absolutely die…he shall die.”
The message is clear: of all the crimes, one of the most heinous and paradigmatic is through a speech act. After all, even in English we call it profanity. It earns you the double death in this world and in the world to come. Placed before us is the alternative inherent in Torah’s project: the purpose of life is sanctification of the world through our performance of speech, our discourse with and in front others and especially as tribute to the Almighty in prayer.
 The man who gathered on the Sabbath and is also put to death is likewise anonymous, but through midrash we find that he’s Zelophechad, the father of the daughters who appael to Moses to give them their inheritance of land and in turn move God to change the law. This cursing sinner though remains emphatically anonymous even through thousands of years of midrash.
 According to midrash, Just before getting into the fight, the son has applied for his rightful place in the tribe of Dan, which will give him a portion of land when the Hebrews occupy the Promised Land. Although by law he has as much right as any other Israelite, Dan rejects him on a technicality: although his mother is an Israelite as the passage reminds us three times, tribal inheritances are patrilineal. Although his father was a convert and should according to Torah law be honored just like any Jew (in fact the end of this passage reinforces that law), the Egyptian father was not “grandfathered” into the Torah’s contract. In reality, the Sages admit, the tribe is afraid that the son’s questionable patrimony might wreak havoc. Maybe the tribal elders knew the whole family was trouble. In another example of Torah’s keen sense of ironic justice, the son goes off in anger and immediately proves them right by getting into a fight and worse, profaning God’s Name.
Chizkuni (Chezekiah bar Manoah, 13th c French) explains further: “את השם ויקלל, he also used the tetragram when cursing. Rabbi Yossi is on record as saying that the Egyptians who were ritually contaminated, also conferred their ritual contamination on the Israelites. His colleagues claimed that the wife of Neriah, a grandson of Dan, was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, and that during the night following the day when Moses slew the Egyptian who was one of the supervisors checking the number of bricks delivered by the Jewish slaves, raped her. History has a way of repeating itself. According to Tanchuma, Emor 24 as well as Vayikra Rabbah 32,4 when the quarrel broke out, and a Jewish man accused this man to be a bastard, this man asked the accuser where his father had been on the night when he claimed that his mother had been raped. The night he referred to was the night when his mother had supposedly been raped by an Egyptian overseer, who had used a pretext to send her husband on an errant. The reason why this blasphemer used the tetragram when cursing G-d, was that he had overheard how Moses had used that name as a means to kill his father. [I do not follow this, because if he had not been born yet, and his mother became pregnant with him as a result of the rape, how could he have overheard Moses? Ed.][This is why the Torah in Exodus 2,14 has one of the two quarrelling Israelites ask Moses whether he planned to kill him also by using the tetragram to curse him, so that he would fall dead. (הלהרגני אתה אומר: “are you going to utter a word which will kill me?”)] – Sefaria commentary on v. Lev 24:11
 From the sense of shalom meaning complete as in refuah shlaymah, a complete healing, whole, or like the round impenetrable zen completeness of a circle, also shlaymah.
 Gen 49:4; Ex 20:25; Ex 31:14; Lev. 19:8; and Lev 18:21 respectively.
 Etymologists trace it to its more basic two-letter root chet-lamed [חל] that forms words including “a hoe” (it digs a hole), “an ill person” (whose integrity is compromised) “sand” (all holes divided by grains), “beginning of something” such as a process or action (to start something is to break the abstract status boundary between stasis and movement) and more generally a state transition like “a switch”, “a window” (before there was glass it refers to a mere opening in the wall), “removal of something,” “a separation,” “something fleeting,” and “a dream,” (a meaning that deserves a chapter on its own). See Meir Goldberg, “Evidence of the Divine Origin of the Torah,” http://www.nleresources.com/media/Evidence%20of%20the%20Divine%20Origin%20of%20the%20Torah%20Meir%20Goldberg_1.pdf Accessed 12/17/2021.
 The Code of Ur-Nammu (Sumer 2300 BCE) has no law governing speech. Ancient pre-Biblical Egypt, amazingly, has left no record of any code of laws.
 Scholars trace laws governing speech back to Roman and Greek law at best, as in this by Van Vechten Veeder, “The History and Theory of the Law of Defamation,” Columbia Law Review Vol. 3, No. 8 (Dec., 1903), pp. 546-573
 There’s another mystical turn to make with the word chilul but its consideration falls outside the bounds of this essay. Chalal in modern Hebrew refers to “space” as in “outer space” or “spaceman.” In modern science inherited from Greek cosmology we conceive of space as a void, a vacuum that makes up the vast majority of the universe and surrounds everything else. But in Jewish view, that void isn’t nothingness, it is the context for everything, intentional, a deliberate removal. Looking at how Hebrew appropriated chalal and extended it to ‘space” underscores the contrast between Greek and Hebrew views of the vacuum and the universe: in Jewish thinking, the void is an absence of something else, it is the subset of the universe, part of Creation, not a default, nihilistic context for everything. In Torah, God’s Creation, like nature, not only abhors a vacuum, but sees it as part of the greater unity, the expression of His Yichud.
This article was published in the now defunct OMNI Magazine, April 1993, page 4.
There’s a new frontier beckoning us, and we’re growing it in our own backyards. Today many writers are looking toward cyberspace as eagerly as previous generations anticipated moving westward across the prairie or out into space. The prairies, however, held hardship and war. And the high frontier of space promises vast stretches of cold indifference punctuated by alien landscapes. But cyberspace lets us dream that we can build an inner frontier, a virtual reality, to our specs. So our culture is telling itself sexy, glitzy, wishful stories about discovering alien territories right here on Earth. About releasing ourselves from the burden of body and liberating ourselves from sex and race and class. About acting out our fantasies in an electronic nether world and tripping through that trapdoor in the mind that will let us, like Alice, fall into a dream.
This is a fascinating utopian mythology based on a technology still in its infancy. So I have been trolling for new cyberpunk fiction (like Neal Stephenson’s Show Crash), going native on electronic bulletin boards, and listening closely to the technical researchers, sociologists, philosophers, hackers, and writers who speculate about cyberspace. This is what I am hearing:
In the short run, cyberspace will require an elaborate cyborg armor — data gloves, goggles, bodysuit, helmets. Many believe, however, that some time in the next century, genetic engineering, biochip design, and nanotechnology will collaborate to product functional wetware — computer interfaces that will enable us to jack our brains directly into a vast, worldwide, interactive network with its own geography and sensory realism. Eventually, we might achieve the Holy Grail of VR research: the delusion that our bodies are actually there, when, as William Gibson quipped in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, “There is no there there.” The result will be a cross between the ultimate interactive computer game and telepathy.
While there may be no there there, many would-be cybernauts imagine there’s something else there, waiting for us on the other side of the interface. A recurring theme I hear is the confidence that cyberspace will be a technology not just of the brain and of the mind, but of the soul. There’s something quite primitive at work in cyberspace’s allure. This yearning for mystical encounters seems unusually superstitious coming from otherwise rational engineers, academics, and writers. But good anthropologists learn not to dismiss all native beliefs as mere superstitions. So let’s take them seriously, if only for a moment. How might cyberspace be a portal to transcendence? Neurophysiologists suspect that lurking somewhere in the brain — most likely in a formation at the base of the brain stem call the dorsal raphe nucleus — lies a facility that makes us feel, under the right conditions, like we’re in communication with gods or that we have voyaged out to meet some Higher Presence. Certain configurations of data delivered to the brain by electronic stimulation could flood this region of the brain with serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in many functions, including hallucination. In this way, the right software might evoke that oceanic, world-embracing feeling known so well to mystics and psycho-tropical beachcombers.
But let’s not stop here with this portrait of cyberspace as some kind of electronic designer drug. It’s hard not to wonder why the brain has this weird facility to make us feel like we’re talking to God. Is something so irrelevant to survival and yet so distinctively human just a neurochemical accident, an evolutionary byproduct of the sheer complexity of the nervous system? Or is it, as Immanuel Kant suggested two centuries ago, that the laws of the “in here” are the same as the laws “out there”: Our minds are tuned to universal harmonies. Perhaps the brain is prepped to receive divine telegrams because there is, after all, an Intelligence informing the cosmos toward which universal evolution gropes — a Cosmic Anthropic Principle. Perhaps VR technology will be one of the ways to open the hailing frequency.
Surely we are no less likely to find transcendence in cyberspace than we are in any other space, whether a Gothic cathedral or a Himalayan monastery or the pages of the Talmud. Cyberspace could be our civilization’s burning bush.
“O comfort-killing night, image of hell, dim register and notary of shame, black stage for tragedies and murders fell, vast sin-concealing chaos, nurse of blame!” – Shakespeare, “Macbeth”
Most of us have experienced bouts of jealousy at some point in our lives. It’s not fun. Jealousy torments you and makes you torment the person you suspect, especially if it is your mate. On the way to doing real damage, you are likely to make yourself look ridiculous to your loved ones and even your community. Jealousy is the devourer, a “green-eyed monster.”
The Bible discusses jealousy in the context of a broken marriage. A husband is so suspicious of his wife, whether justified or not, that he brings her to trial in the ritual of bitter waters (sotah) that establishes whether she has been faithful. Jews often read this portion, Naso (Num 4:21-8:89) around Shavuot holiday, when they also read The Book of Ruth, the story of the faithful woman. The contrast between the two is too good to pass up because Ruth also offers a cure for broken marriages that are as contemporary as they were three thousand years ago.
The sotah trial – really a ritual – is a spectacle. The priests take sacred water, mix it with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, and after plenty of elaborate stagecraft, ink curses and oaths on parchment, grind them up, and mix them into the water. The poor woman has to drink it, a kind of spiritual litmus test. If she’s guilty, the potion promises to “distend her belly and sag her thigh,” make her into a curse to her people, and kill her.
But I want to focus on the other half of the drama. The ritual of bitter waters is also called the “Ordeal of Jealousy.” The two terms adultery and jealousy are entwined throughout this passage. Most popular descriptions of the trial emphasize the victimization of the woman. But the jealous husband’s fate also hangs in the balance and it is obvious that the Bible thinks he is also worthy of condemnation. What if she’s innocent and he’s the one who deserves humiliation (and payment) to atone for his mistake? The bitter sotah water will tell. That’s why when she is being tried, the wife holds in her hand “the meal offering of jealousy” that the husband has brought.
I’m not suggesting the husband is a victim like his wife might be. Just the opposite. The only thing he is a victim of is his own rampant emotion. The English translation often renders his state of mind something like this. He brings his wife to trial because
“a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself.” (Num 5:14)
His rage is the stage for the scene whether she is guilty or not.
The original Hebrew in the Bible for this dramatic seizure of jealousy reveals this more forcefully: it literally says something like:
“…and [the husband] is carried awayhigh [by a] spirit or wind of jealousy doubled “
וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ־קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא
I know that’s awkward to read, but you get the idea. The verb ohvar (עָבַר) has the sense of transgression, loss of self-possession. Alahv (עָלָיו) doesn’t mean spiritual heights but loss of groundedness, rootedness. The doubling of the adjective for jealousy (kinah v’kinei) is a common rhetorical device in Biblical Hebrew to indicate an extremity of a quality, and thisruach kinah v’kineh – blast of super-jealousy – occurs nowhere else in the Torah outside this drama. (It is repeated in the next verse and in the recap at the end of the section). 
Marriage counselors take note: the Hebrew word for jealousy (kanaw – קַנָּא) puns on the word for possession (kawnaw – קָנָה), as when you buy something. But you already knew that. Jealousy and possessiveness go together, and the husband’s suspicions may live in a realm where the facts are irrelevant, overcome by a need for ownership and control of his spouse. The wife either defiled herself OR has not, but the husband is definitely transgressive, lost, alienated, out of his head or too deep into it, and crossed a boundary into a jealous rage.
So obviously yes, on the one hand, adultery is one of the gravest matters, disruptive to home, life, family and community, not to mention violating one of the Ten Commandments and therefore a capital crime.
But on the other hand, so is jealousy. When the Talmud discusses it, it slides between the waywardness of the wife and the anger of the husband, implicitly equating them:
Reish Lakish says: A man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly [shetut] enters him, as it is stated: “If any man’s wife goes aside [tisteh]” (Numbers 5:12). The word tisteh is written with the Hebrew letter shin, affording an alternative reading of tishteh, which is related to the term for folly, the word shetut. 
The pun, however opens a window onto how our tradition views this transcendentally irrational jealousy-adultery complex and, in fact, the moral structure of the Torah itself.
Shtuss. It was one of my bubby’s favorite words and I always assumed it was pure Yiddish because the way she said it was always with that unique mix of laughing dismissal and deep contempt. Little did I know she was invoking a profound Jewish concept embedded in the ancient Hebrew. And like that unique Yiddish flavor of contempt and irony in the word, there’s comedy implicit in the staging of the sotah trial, despite its gravity, that comes from the public outing of the husband’s jealousy.
Adultery and jealousy are twin foolishnesses. They both can unleash an orgy (maybe that’s the wrong word) of foolishness, gossip and disruption in the community if not rectified. The Bible is clear that it was just as likely that the husband was in the grips of crazed suspicion as the wife was guilty. No wonder sotahis the title and subject of an entire tractate of the Talmud that ends with an extended apocalyptic vision of the descent of the generations (Yeridas HaDoros) into transgression and loss.
But the wife’s alleged adultery is at this point only a suspected act. There’s so much histrionics already in the Biblical ritual that if the accused is guilty, she is just as likely to die of psychosomatic fright than the magic bitter waters which promise to “distend her belly and sag her thigh” and kill her. For some, that former fate might seem the worse threat.
Let’s keep our focus on the husband, though. Imagine being so deep in the grips of jealousy’s derangement that you are willing to air your dirty laundry in public. You’re going to expose yourself either as a cuckold, or insanely suspicious. Imagine subjecting your wife and family and self to this ordeal. The jealous husband is a common, ridiculous figure in comedies throughout time, from the ancient Greeks to Chaucer and Shakespeare to Hollywood. The entertainment industry would be out of business without jealousy. You probably know someone who fits the type. The jealous husband – if he’s not tragic like Othello – is usually met with ridicule, which one of my professors called “a kind of wild, communal justice.” But by setting tongues wagging with vigilante gossip, it only makes things worse. Only the priestly ritual can rectify the cosmic, communal imbalance that a domestic drama creates once it flies out of the home, fueled by the husband’s suspicions.
By the way, marital Counselors Note #2: the husband’s jealousy often pushes his wife into the behavior he fears. Such is the paradox of paranoia. But you knew that, too.
The Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, 16th century] expands on the Talmud’s pun. He says that this sin of adultery comes to teach us that every sin has a bit of foolish adultery in it:
No one does any sin if they weigh the full implications of his actions … a sin is illogical, and so we say a ru’ach shtuss (a deep spirit of foolishness) has entered him (or her).
In other words, though it is aberrant and has aspects of both high tragedy and low comedy, the adultery-jealousy complex captures an intrinsic integrity of the Torah’s entire moral system. While most secular and modern views of the Bible suggest it presents a system of faith that is the opposite of reason and logic. But the foundation of its traditional moral order is rational. The behaviors it warns us against, its laws, mark the sharp boundaries between animal impulses like lust and lizard-brain rage and civil, orderly behavior. Violating its laws makes no sense. Behaving yourself creates order and civic harmony, which are also holy. Plato and Aristotle knew this. Shakespeare did too, for all the fun he has with human frailty and misbehavior. It’s just a lesson we’ve seem to forgotten in a secular age.
Foolishness, fidelity and choice
The sotah contrasts with that paradigm of psychic strength and self-possession, Ruth. Naomi, her husband and two sons leave Israel to find their fortunes in Moab. The sons take Moabite wives, sisters Orpah and Ruth. But the father and two sons all die. Broken by loss and poverty, Naomi decides to go back to Israel. Orpah a stays, which makes sense. But Ruth accompanies Naomi in one of the great pledges of selfless love and fidelity: “Where you go, I will follow. Your G-d will be my G-d.” Back in Israel, they barely survive as paupers on the pickings of barley crop left in the field after harvest. Here, Ruth is only a Moabite woman, statusless, an alien, taunted and molested by the crop pickers. But her modesty and grace catch the eye of the rich landowner himself, Boaz. He protects her and ultimately redeems her in marriage. It’s one of the great happy endings in the Jewish canon.
Juxtapose the two stories and we see that the cure for sotah’s shtuss is Ruth’s strength. The remedy for foolishness is faithfulness, in every sense of the word. Counselors Note #3: Commitment to a higher code, outside our self-absorption in our own troubles, grants us an amazing calm and grace even in the face of humiliation. How does that work, exactly? There’s a feedback loop between devotion to something that is not-self and orderly in ourselves and order in the world we create around ourselves, between inner psychic conviction and trust in a higher order, in a supernal destiny. This confidence in comportment, in restraining our passions in the face of all challenges, manifests itself in things like trust in our spouses and behaving ourselves in marriage and beyond to treatment of our family and our society. Ruth knows – and acts as if – they are all connected. Perhaps that is why the line of King David and the Messiah springs from her, a woman who begins as a widowed, beggared Moabite stranger in Israel, attached to her embittered mother-in-law.
As a convert, Ruth reminds us that we choose our behaviors. She chooses to follow Naomi. She chooses her public and private demeanor. She chooses to be a Jew, reminding us that fidelity to being Jewish requires a constant conscious choice. It is harder and more meaningful to make a deliberate, conscious choice to be a Jew than it is to rest on our Laurels (and Hardys) and assume we’re covered just because we were born that way and happen to like bagels and lox.
Husbands and wives choose how to behave themselves in matters of marriage and procreation. Any mortal marriage is equivalent to Ruth’s marriage to Judaism. A husband and wife commit to each other and to a third principle that arises from their tie to each other but exists outside and above them. We sometimes call that third entity “the institution of marriage,” but that sounds deadening. “Holy matrimony” is a politically incorrect cliche, but it comes closer by invoking the source of healing of the jealousy-adultery complex. Marriage is a dynamic, active ever-unfolding creation. It requires that the spouses consciously and continuously choose it, not just to forestall the shtuss twins of lust and jealousy, but to keep the marriage vital and even, possibly joyful. I like to think that’s where true love comes from, bringing heaven onto earth.
Dedicated to my wife, Sally
San Mateo, 5790/2020
This perambulation was inspired by one of the many seemingly off-handed spontaneous remarks during class by my teacher, Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, that had profound learning and depth of insight behind it. He said, “sotah is connected to shtuss.’
 The Talmud debates the meaning of this phrase as possibly meaning we shouldn’t get witnesses and warnings involved because it will arouse the anger in the domestic dispute, but it concludes by confirming the shared responsibility: “And the husband is he who will come to act in anger with her, as they will have mutual antagonism toward each other.” (Sotah 2b)
 Reish Lakish in (Sotah 3a) is playing on the fact that one sign signifies two sounds – ‘sin’ and ‘shin” ( שְׂ ) – note the dot on top moves from right to left).
The pun has many layers of linguistic complexity relating to this discussion of Sotah. First, there’s a pun between s’teh spelled with a ‘sin’ (wayward) and sotah, the name for the ritual, spelled with a ‘samech’ ( ס ). The letter ‘sin’ was interchanged with the letter ‘samech’ in early Hebrew but is more or less fixed by the time of the Mishnah. Second, the word “sot” and “shot” are virtually equivalent, both meaning “to turn aside from the path” (see the entry for שׁוטKlein Dictionary, Carta Jerusalem; 1st edition, 1987).
In other words, the ritual is named after or at least sounds the same as the label for the wayward woman, which unfortunately fixes the focus on the woman’s culpability, not the man’s, and thus fuels the feminist indictment of it.
According to the Internet god of all things virtually true, the word virus comes from the Latin root meaning “snake’s venom.”
This viral etymology is repeated in one form or another on all the major sites about words – wiktionary, dictionary, wordorigins, merriam-webster, etymonline, oxfordlearnersdictionaries.
They’re all cribbing from the mother of all English dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary.
“Virus: [L(atin) ‘slimy liquid, poison…] 1. venom such as emitted by a poisonous animal.”
It makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Viruses are sorta poison-spewing evil little animalcules, right? But all these free online sources are, like most thieves, lazy and simply repeat each other’s smash and grab larceny of the OED. No one owns words, but discovering their origins and sources is hard work. See “The Professor and the Madman” (2019). It’s free on Netflix. Thieves like free, right?
If we dig a little deeper – perform a more serious archeology on virus using the OED as our guide – we uncover in its sinuous history a message for our current coronavirus pandemic.
Virus and virtue
The second definition of virus in the OED is “path,” also deriving from the Latin. What’s the connection? It’s probably not the toxicity of snakes but a deeper shared origin having to do with their shape. A snake is shaped like a curvy path.
Sure enough, if we wend our way next door to virus‘s neighbor word virtue, we see another clue: the original root of ‘virtue’ is vir, a Latin root for ‘man’. In ancient Rome, virtus meant courage on the field of battle. Virtue was inherently virile, masculine. Julius Caesar in Book I of TheGallic Wars, his macho historical narrative, advises that we should
Rely more on virtue than on artifice and stratagem.
But if you’re a logomaniac like me, you’re not content with a mere 2000-year-old source. You want to dig deeper beneath the Roman ruins to find the oldest possible origin. Where did that word come from? Why do those three letters come to mean something as elemental as ‘maleness’? 
So strip away yet another layer and you discover vir comes from an even earlier root, probably Hindo-Sanskrit or early Greek, for stick, twig, or rod. That’s the fundamental root connection: rod is a phallus or vice versa, and thus manly virtues like virility carry genital freight. The Latin word virga preserve this root: it also means rod. I will leave it to your imagination how it penetrated to the concept of virginity.
At the very root of language?
What etymologists fantasize about is traveling back in time to eavesdrop on the first burbling articulation by the first genius hominid who first invented the word they’re studying. Maybe – and this is a real fantasy – vir was the very first word, there at the aboriginal creation of language, of wording itself, where sounds came to represent and signify external things instead of only verbalizing hominid reactions to transitory events or warnings or coded warblings or states of existence.
So imagine with me a linguistic Adam and Eve alone in their grove. Fueled by the urgency of desire, a sound erupts from one or the other of them and she (or he) points at what they both want,
“Vir!” he (or she) said, nodding at it, and they look down and they smile in a flash of telepathy, for it was obvious that they agree this was a capital way to indicate that thing.
“Vir,” the other repeats, and “vir,” they would coo to each other from now henceforth, forever after referring to it in the kind of fond secret vocabulary that couples everywhere invent, pillow talk.
But somehow the secret gets out and catches on. Someone eavesdropped, the snake perhaps, and it spread, this viral app of pointing with sound, especially this happy signifying meme. Folks apply the sound pointer nimbly to other things like stick and rod, and eventually, surely by the time of the Latins, to snake. We’ve made the same slangy sling of meaning. Shlong comes from the German word for “snake,” to take only one of hundreds of examples.
The essence of virus
Language isn’t a computer code but a stew. Dictionaries shouldn’t be lists of algorithms any more than cookbooks are chemistry manuals. As the pot of culture simmers, convenience, contingency, inspiration, necessity and even humor throw in new ingredients and flavors. A good chef would never follow a recipe slavishly.
Dictionaries, however, are by definition definitive, making pronouncements on fluid meanings as if they’re fixed. We can see how the conflation between venom and virus creeps in. It’s not really an error, but a cluster of images and metaphors that crowd and seep – I might say infect – each other. A snake emits venom like the penis spews semen. A vir is the source of fluid essence, it is seminal. This is how we get to virus.
Snake down the path to yet another neighboring word in the Oxford English Dictionary, virtue, and the hidden route to virus appears.
the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural god or being
Virtual means “to be possessed of the power to influence, to have the potential to affect.” Caesar’s exemplary man influences us to manliness by his valor. Divinity influences us to virtue metaphysically.
From here it is now one more small step to that other kind of invisible influenza, organic virus and virulence. The very word flu is a contraction of influenza. We now know that a microscopic pocket of weaponized genetic material causes flu pandemic. It sits astride the limbo between living and not, helping all-too-many souls to cross it, ubiquitous but invisible like G-d Himself. Through most of history, to most humans, it must have seemed metaphysical.
Pandemic as transcendental flu
Millions of words have already been written about the terrible virtues of this virus, how nature or the divine is exerting its superior influence over human affairs through the invisible Covid-19 flu pandemic, correcting our hubris, changing civilization in the blink of an eye, forcing us to inspect and re-evaluate assumptions about work, play, family, love, even self. Even if you cannot be persuaded that this – or anything else – has metaphysical origins, you have to admit the coronavirus pandemic is doing a good imitation of what a metaphysical being would do: making us consider the meaning of virtue as if we had indeed lost our path.
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from G-D and consumed them, so they died in front of G-D. (Lev 10:1-2)
Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 1312 BCE: It’s one of the most mystical days in our calendar. Kabbalah tells us it’s the anniversary of G-d’s very conception of Creation. The trans-dimensional portal that enables Him to visit us, the mishkan, is complete. Moshe, Aaron and his sons have tested it for a week. Everything works. It’s show time.
In an excess of wine-induced ecstasy or zeal or chutzpah, these two princes enter the most transcendent and dangerous place in the cosmos to offer that most esoteric of sacrifices, incense. Rather than accepting the incense as it did two verses before, G-d’s fire instead eats their souls, leaving their bodies still in their tunics. Moses tells Aaron, with what feels like incredible sangfroid, “G-d warned us this is how His glory works to bring us near,” and commands Aaron not to mourn his sons openly.
Was it a Divine kiss or punishment? Did they transcend or transgress? At this miraculous interface between the supernal and mundane, all is beyond comprehension, suprarational.
I began writing this on Nadav and Abihu’s yahrzeit 2020. In these days of plague that will include Pesach, our mystical calendar is talking to us across the millenia. Too many have become Aarons, enduring the unimaginable pain of burying loved ones without proper mourning.
Yet, perhaps there’s solace for us. The function of the mishkan was to sublime the physical into transcendent holiness. Today, while we wait to rebuild it, its invitation to elevate matter into spirit through sacrifice is everywhere, if we look for it.
There’s a murky encounter between two strangers in the middle of the Joseph story. It comes at a pivotal moment in the drama of Joseph and his brothers, but it’s really weird and begs us to shed light on it.
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