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 a happy – if portentous – ending. After Joseph finally reunites with the eleven brothers in Egypt after their kabuki, he 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 Joseph’s father, Jacob.
To sweeten the deal, they reserve the fattest part of Egypt to settle the whole tribe when they come – the land of Goshen down river towards the Nile delta where the soil is rich. We can spend a lot of time delving all their motives. The plain sense is that Joseph wants to see his father and secure the future of his family in Egypt, especially as they face a famine in Canaan also. Pharaoh is all too eager to secure the permanent service of his magical CEO Joseph and, perhaps, genuinely wants him to be completely comfortable. But we know how that goes for the Hebrews. We read the scene a little like a horror story when we know the ghost is lurking in the closet and we want to shout to the characters, “No! Don’t!”
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.” This is gobbledygook, but it seems to be calling for our attention.
Much more greater enlargement
Jacob knows the wagons are symbolic of Joseph’s essence and exclaims it. His favorite son’s very presence, even as a young boy, seems to make life bigger and more extravagant. His lavish coat is just outward expression of his unrestrained charisma. He brings fantastic dreams to life and they 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: “My son adds so much more life.” Jacob sees the spiritual reality, not the material illusion. He isn’t swayed by the lavish riches in front of him. He’s not toting up the wealth in front of 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 then, in case we thought we were just kanoodling around with wordplay, there’s a clincher: the prior verse calls Jacob by his birth name when he’s resuscitated: “the spirit of Jacob revived.” But here in the next verse he is “Israel,” the prophetic name gets after winning a wrestling match with an angel. Israel is the father of the twelve sons who go down to Egypt as a tribe of seventy and emerge two hundred some years later as a mighty nation of literate slaves bearing his name. In short, the verse is altogether prophetic. Jacob suffers a mini-death and is resurrected as Israel by his son Joseph’s spiritual largesse. He must know the prophecy of exile that awaits his family and their descendants, yet immediately embarks on the fateful journey.
Now if we read it 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.
Rashi reads the poetry of the scene
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 (as Strong and Brown-Driver-Biggs dictionaries tell us). 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.
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, a tradition of the Sages). All those verses elaborating the stagecraft – loading the eleven wagons with stuff – we now see as a double message, one dramatically apparent, the other encrypted – from prodigal son to grieving father that only the two of them would understand. “These wagonloads prove the existence of the son who enlarges the material world by connecting it to the spiritual world.
To prove this, Rashi’s genius sees more than a mere pun. What is the law of the eglah arufah? If a corpse is found in the wilderness between two cities, one or another city must take responsibility for burial and pursuing justice. (Deut 21:1-9). The priests of the closest town must go into the wilderness, sacrifice a calf by breaking its neck, send it over a cliff, and thus cancel the bill for an unsolved injustice and guilt that would come due to innocent townsfolk.
The Rebbe reads the Rashi
The Lubavitcher Rebbe expands our understanding of this ritual. Though he doesn’t refer to Rashi explicitly, he deepens our reading even more. He 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.” (See “The Neck,” Chabad.org)
Jacob reading the wagons is a lesson in reading Torah
There’s one more point, a meta-point, about this scene. Just as Rashi says the wagons signify how Jacob taught Joseph to read Torah, Jacob here also exemplifies a lesson about how to read Torah. 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 then short-circuiting our rational, empirical senses and opening up to the mysteries inside the poetry, the associative, artistic, aesthetic resonance of the images and words acting together, as in one of Joseph’s dreams-to-become real. The result creates a channel, a precarious joint, from the spiritual realm to the material one. This transcendent punning enlarges the domain of reality and life. 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.
For my son, Avraham Benjamin, who was born the first night of Chanukah.
This Chanukah in particular, 2019, Jews are struggling with the growing sense that it’s happening again. Less than eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is again on the rise in the West. I don’t need to recount the litany of current events and the fear they’re causing.
I find both succor and armor in Chanukah. The lights and prayers give not just psychic comfort and hope, but are the actual tools to resist the dark tide of history.
Here’s what I mean. On the first night of Chanukah we say a third prayer, the Shehecheyanu, thanking God for bringing us “to this time” (lazman hazeh). This prayer always gets me whenever I say it. Its message is for anyone: be grateful for all the things good and bad that occurred to you, because they brought you to this lovely intersection of fate. Every moment is a miracle.
The second prayer, recited every night over the candles, rhymes with this third. We say bazman hazeh – “in this time” – implying ‘this season on the calendar when we remember what God did for us on Chanukah 22 centuries ago’: letting one night’s worth of oil keep the lamps lit for eight nights after the Maccabees regained the Temple from the Greeks.
There’s a profound lesson in the prepositions, from bazman – in this season repeated every year – to lazman, to this very moment – this particular personal intersection of fate. We’re being told this isn’t just a nice commemoration of history. It’s still happening. We still are in history, or history is brought to our doorstep, at this very moment. That’s why we’re supposed to display the menorah, even putting it out in front of our homes for everyone to see.
The rest of the Jewish calendar repeats the same sermon as this one hidden in the Chanukah prayers. Our holidays is a survival kit, not just Chanukah but Purim and Passover (and Succot and Shavuoth and Tisha B’Av and Lag B’Omer and …), they are rehearsals of past success but they also summon the forces to win the future.
And it is war. Chanukah was a contest over who would rule the Temple, and we celebrate that our nationalists won, re-occupied the Temple, cleansed it of idolatry, and re-asserted monotheism symbolized in a miracle. But it was also a war for what beliefs would rule over the hearts, minds and souls of individual Jews, a war over what kind of world we inhabit, a war over nothing less than how we see reality itself.
Pythagoras and the Greek Religion
The war of the Maccabees against the Greeks was brewing for centuries, even before Alexander occupied ancient Israel in the fourth century. We can find its roots in the essential differences between Greek and Jewish thought.
Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) is considered the father of Greek philosophy, and is even credited with inventing the word. The son of Greek nobility, around the age of twenty he travels around the Middle East and Mediterranean for twelve years. He visits Egypt. On his way back, he stops at Mt. Carmel to visit Elijah’s cave for several weeks. He then journeys to Babylon at a time that would have coincided with the Jewish exile.
Inspired by the wisdom and mysticism of these other cultures, he returns to Greece and founds a mystic-scientific-cosmological-communal brotherhood preaching an ascetic view of the cosmos and our personal role in it. Pythagoras operates it like a leader of a cult or mafia. He is even supposed to have had a star pupil, Hippasos, murdered during a symposium cruise for expounding on the existence of irrational numbers like √2. Pythagoreans communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence.
Pythagoras preached that reality is only that which can be measured and understood through rational numbers. This is a pure abstraction of a material worldview so profound and powerful it later inspires among others, Plato (ca 425-ca 328 BCE) and Epicurus (341–270 BCE). Plato believed that the universe was static, made up of perfect, ideal forms. The highest activity of the human was to contemplate the universe using reason – rational thought – and discern how these ideal forms project themselves onto the material world to create the shadow play of reality. Greek philosophy is a religion that worships the rational human mind, much as modern secularism and our scientific culture.
Epicurus preached that there is no afterlife, no Divine Creator, and that we should lvie the best life we can while we have it. Today we think of an epicurean as a sensualist, but the Greek philosophy designed an entire ethical way of balancing gratification with the avoidance of pain and creating a positive civic life. He gives his name, at least apparently, to the archetype of the Jewish heretic, the epikoros. The Talmud singles out the Jew who denies the authority of the rabbis and mocks them personally. Dante reserves a ring of hell for Epicurus and his followers, whose punishment was to burn in their graves until the dead are resurrected, at which time they would be left behind and never re-unite with their souls. Even in the 20th century, no less a philosopher than my bubby Dora used a Yiddish variation of his name as a curse. “Apikoyris!” she would spit when another Jew offended her sense of what a mensch should be.
The Second Chanukah
Chanukah celebrates our allergy to the Greeks and the events of 167 BCE. The Talmud reinforces it by issuing a prohibition against teaching our sons Greek (Sotah 49b). This is mysterious. By the time of the Talmud, Greek was considered high learning. Even Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE) boasts, “There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.” But the antipathy to Greek, its potential for destruction, is illustrated in a story which the Talmud tells to support its ruling, a second, darker Chanukah.
76-67 BCE – Aristobulus and Hyrkanos, great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom. Hellensim again creeps back to dominate Jewish culture a century after the original Chanukah story. Hyrkanos leads the urbane, progressive Seleucid [Greek] faction. Assimilated Jews resist turning back to the old primitive rituals and politics. They must have thought of themselves as liberal cosmopolites, sophisticated moderns. The Greeks have put their stamp on a new and irresistible view of the world for centuries now. Why cling to benighted old traditions and superstitions? Judah Maccabee was, after all, a religious zealot, a fundamentalist survivalist from the backwaters. We would do well to finally put his bigotry and the old Civil War behind us in favor of more enlightened, urbane culture of the Greeks.
In the spirit of his grand-uncle, Aristobulus leads the conservative Pharisees, trying to preserve the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple. He seizes Jerusalem and the Temple to protect it. So Hyrkanos besieges Aristobulus. An old man inside the walls betrays the Pharisees by using “Greek wisdom” to send secret, coded messages to the enemy, who then trick the Pharisees into bringing up a pig in a sling. The desecration literally shakes the foundations of Jerusalem and can be felt throughout Israel. It breaks their spirit. Rashi explains that “Greek wisdom refers to a set of cryptic expressions or gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers or the nobility), not by common people.” The Pythagoreans communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence. No doubt this code was brought forward, just as our split-fingered sign of the kohanim in the Temple survives.
One could see how the Seleucid Jews would find assimilation so attractive, and why Jewish thinkers and students could be seduced, even from within the walls of Jerusalem itself. The Greek worldview, in one form or another, must have seemed, and continues to seem, the essence of enlightenment and modernism. of scientific rational thought. Yet, to the rabbis of the Talmud, Greek wisdom, the secret Pythagorean code, was the essence of assimilation. In their wisdom perhaps they say how it would continue to threaten Jewish existence.
The story of this second Chanukah comes at the end of tractate Sotah a famously dark prophesy of the total collapse of Jewish world called Yeridas HaDoros – the Descent of the Generations. Yeridas HaDoros recounts in dismal detail for long pages and in great detail the complete corruption of Jewish values, family, civil respect and religious observance.* When the hoof of the swine touches Jerusalem’s walls,” says the Talmud at the end of its story of the betrayal of Jerusalem in Sotah,“the entire foundation of Israel itself shakes.”
Incompatible Views of the Cosmos
Pythagoras’ vision of perfectionism and purity of form still holds sway today. Indeed, Pythagoreanism is the foundation of Western culture. It connects the Hellenic culture of the 5th c BCE of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle with Roman culture. It connects Roman philosophy that dominated in the time of the destruction of the Temple with the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church. The strict belief of Western science in rationality branches out fifteen centuries later into science along with the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the origin of the other branches of Christianity. Pythagoreanism represents a continuous tradition of the perfectibility of humans and the rational basis of the universe and everything in it. The cosmos is a rational, deterministic, ideal machine governed by unified laws we can elucidate with our minds.^
Contrast the static Pythagorean philosophy of being to our Jewish cosmology of an ever-blossoming, ever-unfolding, complex, imperfect and ineffable world of becoming. God’s Face is always receding and hidden, yet God’s attention continuously creates the cosmos. Even the method of Jewish discourse to arrive at the truth contrasts sharply with the Greek. You need only compare a page of any conventional Western book with a page of the Talmud to get the idea. One signifies a simple, clear stream of letters marching in lines across the page as the story proceeds in orderly fashion from beginning to middle to end.
The Talmud plunges you into a hypertextual jumble: a noisy symposium capturing voices and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries separated by centuries and thousands of miles and cultures. The choppy sea of Talmud exemplifies what Plato scorned as chaotic, subjective aesthetika and rhetorika as opposed to his orderly logos. The quintessential Greek text is the algebraic proof. Like Pythagorean theorem, it leads to a single, clarifying answer: the way and the truth no one gets to except through the one. The Jew’s is an argument leading to more questions.
Not just an academic debate
The fundamental incompatibility between these two cosmologies leads to a perpetual Chanukah. Jews are always suspended between the b’zman hazeh and l’zman hazeh. The Talmud burns in Europe, and then so do the Jews.
This is not just an academic exercise in philosophy. The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, “showing” that all thought can be reduced to mathematically rigorous logic. They also say, “Modern philosophy is nothing more than a footnote to Plato.” Later, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Russell declares Pythagoras the greatest of all philosophers.**
In the 1920s, Martin Heidegger reinserts Pythagoreanism, an updating of the Greco-Christian Being vs. Becoming duality, into the heart of philosophy. Without going into his extraordinary influence over the twentieth century, including postmodernism and deconstruction, suffice it to say that virtually every thinker and theorist since has had to grapple with Heidegger and has been influenced by him. He was also an official member of the Nazi party.***
Nazism has its link to philosophies of materialism, constructivism, deconstruction and moral relativism that lead to the mechanization and disregard for the sanctity of human existence. We’re all just stuff, at the end, the soul an illusion. It is the same Greek wisdom that lies in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem and is the source of ongoing Jewish assimilation to Western culture.
This year when I hold the flaming candle, I’m thankful for getting to this moment with my family and having the weapon in my hand to prevail in the long struggle.
David Porush, San Mateo, 2019
Thanks to classmates Boris Feldman, Josef Joffe, and Sam Tramiel, and special thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, who inspired the first version of this piece in 2014 for a siyyum hasefer. I’m also grateful to my chavrusa Ron Kardos, Pinchas Gardyn, Yael Esther Berenfus whose input improved this immensely. However, all foolishness and errors in fact and judgment are my own.
^The Rambam, in Guide for the Perplexed, calls Aristotle, heir of Plato, half a prophet. Why half? Rambam says Aristotle fell short because he equated human nature with rationality alone. Aristotle’s ‘thinking being’ strives to rule the world through subjugation and calculation; Rambam’s “praying being” can be king of the world by elevating it. “When there’s nothing higher than intellect, intellect has no guiding light.”*Between the second century BCE and second century CE, during the era of the Talmud, Pythagoreanism enjoys a huge revival in Roman culture, what we now call neo-Pythagoreanism. Cicero, the famous Roman senator, and his good friend in the Senate, Nigidius Figulus, lead the revival around 50 BCE. Nigidius writes a 27-volume treatise of mathematics, grammar, astronomy and magic that becomes a classic, along with Cicero’s work, for centuries.
*In the first century CE, the sect of neo-Pythagoreans construct a Pythagorean Temple underground, at Porto Maggiore in Rome. It combines elements of paganism and Christianity. It is the site of secret sacrificial rites, necromancy, and is filled with images of the Greek gods. At the same time, it has an apse and nave, a new architectural form built with the Pythagorean ‘golden mean’ like the Acropolis, but meant to represent the cross, the same architecture we see in the great cathedrals of the Christian Europe and even in the humblest wooden Baptist churches today. But the connection is more than architectural.
**Interestingly, Russell’s last act, literally, in his life, is meant to shake the whole land of Israel. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 in Cairo, condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.
*** Victor Farias, in Heidegger and Nazism (1987) and Emanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005) show how Heidegger, who was an unapologetic and avowed Nazi, introduced Nazi violence into the scene of contemporary Western philosophy. His chief heir and leader of the Yale school of deconstruction, Paul DeMan, was exposed as having been a Nazi collaborator and writer during WWII. The monumental French thinker Jacques Derrida, himself an Algerian Jew, rose to DeMan’s defense in a shameful chapter in the history of postmodern thought.
“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
The biography of Joseph is a kind of familiar picaresque tale about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned in the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to grandiose heroism, like Tom Jones. But the fabric of the text, the words of the original Hebrew, reveals a hidden warp and woof of hidden cross-references so intense that it feels like a transcendentally-talented artist of wordplay and allusion, a super John Donne or T.S. Eliot or James Joyce, wrote it.
The story in brief
Jealous of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son (he gets a multi-colored coat), and worse, he’s a vain, grandiose “dreamer,” his brothers throw him in a pit, consider murdering him, but instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. After they’re rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, Jacob, to prove that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the sign of Jewish bereavement forever after). 
Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites carry Joseph to Egypt and sell him. His new owner, Potiphar recognizes Joseph is gifted and elevates him to be his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in prophetic manner.
This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, the screenwriters adapting the book would cut a couple of problematic parts, its crazy digressions. One is a nonsensical one about Joseph wandering around lost in Shechem looking for his brothers until a stranger gives him directions. Another is a more interesting and lurid sub-plot about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. But it doesn’t advance or even connect to the main narrative. But let’s look at it, because it cloaks a couple of interesting features. 
Judah and Tamar in brief
Judah has three sons. The eldest marries Tamar but dies. The second, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his or because he doesn’t want Tamar to spoil her figure through pregnancy, he “spills his seed,” for which God kills him too. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the house until Shelah grows up and then leave when he is of age. Judah worries that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.
But Tamar is being deprived of her rightful betrothal to the surviving brother-in-law that will save her honor and guarantee her material support, called a levirate marriage. She disguises herself as a whore, snares Judah on a road trip, and gets pregnant by him. Judah doesn’t have cash on him, so leaves a signet ring and a staff as collateral. Three months later, when she is showing, she is hauled before the court. Judah is the chief justice. She is about to be sentenced to death by burning for her harlotry when she confronts him with the signet and a staff. He admits his responsibility and praises Tamar for seeking justice.
This is also a nice story with ironic twists. It could make a cool movie on its own, maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a neat 90-minute romcom. It even has a happy ending. But what’s it doing here?
The literary coherence of the story of Joseph in a single word
The Torah is notoriously frugal with its description and gives few extraneous details. But on closer inspection, the literary eye sees a remarkable oddity within this odd detour. Because there’s so little other color, when props are brought on stage, they get our attention. In fact they unavoidably seem like metaphors or symbols of … something else.
The props in Joseph’s story are his coat and all the other articles of clothing. Joseph’s coat is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with him: his grandiosity, his preening, his many talents, his favored status which he lords over them in his prophetic dreams. (And yes, as if to prove the point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical, and then movie, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) The brothers bring the torn, bloody coat to Isaac.
The props that stand out in the digression about to Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department. But then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She later puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.
Beged, the macguffin
When the Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story, the prop for the story is again an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly, he leaves it in her grasp. Again, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside, proof of her claims Joseph tried to rape her.
Screenwriters call this a “MacGuffin,” an object with little clear intrinsic value that they use to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon” or the letters of transit in Casablanca or the rug in “The Big Lebowski”). Now that we see it, we re-read the whole story with new eyes.
As we unpack its imagery, the Torah story starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.
One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged [בגד – B-G-D]. It rings like a bell through the story. Jacob tears his beged (Gen 37:31-32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged (Gen 38:14) to play the whore. She then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, Beged recurs six times just in this part of the chapter (Gen 39:12-18), and twelve times throughout the weekly reading called Vayyeshev. As words go, it’s a real lexical macguffin.
Sure enough, lurking inside the word lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.
Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph, then sell their brother into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.
Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays him by deceiving him.
Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous, too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.
We can’t help but notice the bedroom comedy between Potiphar and Joseph episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side. Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a lie. Yet it works to land Joseph in jail. The two stories are flip sides of an allegory of justice perverted. Hold that thought. We will return to it later.
In each incident, the occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is self-referential: it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, like words that cloak hidden meanings. It’s a pun on punning, a turn on turning a phrase, a trope on the tropics of textuality. 
Once we tug at this thread, we unravel entanglements with other double and triple meanings that weave the text together. Here is a sentence describing the source of Tamar’s grievance
So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. (Genesis 38:14)
What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’.  There’s a fine line in a beautifully-wrought poem about appearances here.
The word billows out
Eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billow out to implicate other events, not just in this portion, but in the rest of Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob, their forefather. Jacob emerged from Rebekah grasping the heel of his twin, Esau, and we saw what mischief spun out from there. (The word for “heel” is another pun on “treachery.”) But fate in the Hebrew family is stronger. Just as Tamar ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
A tangled web of deception, disguise, and punning woven in a word
The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes between Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of God’s history as He chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for twenty years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dinah.
But the word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.
Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Gen 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes too late to Isaac to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired in that blessing by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadiv). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’,” they say. 
In the end, though Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this portion of the Torah, Vayeishev: ‘and he settled’: The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. Their elaborate. perverse tribal genealogy is recounted just before this chapter begins.
The evolution of beged and elaborate design in the fabric of the rest of Torah
The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering about this transformation in its own small way, beged’s meaning changes as it moves from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants, or garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified, or regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife). The word mysteriously gets simplified, shedding its alternative, cloaked meanings.
Beged’s other sense as ‘treachery ‘only occurs once more, soon after the events of Joseph, before it disappears forever, in a law describing divorce:
“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her.” (Exodus 21:8)
We are subtly reminded of Vayyeshev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out an odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due, by selling her to a foreign nation, which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.
The word transmutes into a measure of holy justice and honesty
The word beged then does something even stranger: by the time we reach the fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely, with only one remarkable exception:
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment as pledge (collateral).” (Deuternonomy 24:17)
The word calls out here nakedly, without adornment: Beged. It has long ago shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted, elevated to a fundamental symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice evenhandedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy: don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to that other widow from four books ago, Tamar
This one recurrence of the word, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.
What author had this much wit?
What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer?
When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did that author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?
Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? If it was, who maintained the secret for those centuries so it could be ultimately manifested?
Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety and coherence in the composition of the Torah that only a single transcendentally gifted Author could possibly have held it in His mind?
 Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).
 The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.
I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.
The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.
Last week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews on campuses that receive federal funding, alongside other students of race, color or national origin. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.” It was actually two controversies for the price of one. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?
Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? Jews themselves debate it.
There is a document that defines Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. For now, call it an essence.
A Jew is someone who knows that God gave Jews this contract. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that the Hebrew Bible originates from a Divine author has good explanatory power for the persistence of Jews. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds, even as it singles them out for persecution, which is also beyond all rational explanation (though we all have our own favorite rational explanation). The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Trump’s move is both so fulfilling and right and troubling and dangerous at the same time.
But here are the rules of the contract that makes a Jew a Jew:
You don’t get to sign the contract at birth. If your parents signed the contract, you are a Jew. It’s your birthright. Technically, only your mother has to be Jewish.
Whether or not you want to live up to your end of the deal or how much you do is all on you. But you’re still a Jew no matter what. Almost all Jews sort of know that what they are supposed to believe in. Almost all Jews sort of know the Torah is the source of the beliefs and contractual clauses. However, some, maybe most, have never read it cover to cover especially in the 21st century. Others build their lives around it intensely, reading it and following its advice.
There isn’t a Jew who perfectly fulfills his or her end of the Torah’s bargain. Some fall very, very short. A few may have entirely lost the knowledge that there is a contract. Many were never given the chance to read it. Others are unable to appreciate it if they do. Some don’t want to be part of the contract at all and walk away from it. Some are even actively hostile to it. All these Jews, except the few technical heretics, are still Jews.
However, history shows that the descendants of Jews who don’t claim their inheritance more than likely will not be Jews within a few generations. We know it in our bones, even if we want to deny history. The 2013 Pew Study proved it again for our generation:
“Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America.”
Intermarriage is higher among Jews who already have a weak religious identity.
At the same time, the Jew club is open. If you’re not born into it, you can become a full-on Jew by showing you’ve read, understand, and signed the contract. It doesn’t make a difference what your ethnic, racial, national or religious heritage was. Furthermore, if you choose Judaism, you will probably know a lot more about it than most born Jews.
The “nationality” of the Jew is indeed a part, but not all, of the contract. The nation of Israel was promised to Jews by God. Call it Zionism 0.0. A lot of the Torah is a utopian design for the nation of Israel, explaining how to behave as citizens in a society where everyone is utterly responsible for everyone else. Even when Jews don’t own the land of Israel as their Jewish nation, or Jews live outside it, the vision of Israel as this Divinely ordered utopia gives Jews a national identity and that they have hereditary rights to it.
This is why the equation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism holds water. The identification of the Jew with Israel the real geographic nation is intimate and inseparable, even if an individual Jew isn’t a Zionist or is an anti-Zionist, or rejects the equation between being a Jew and being pro-Israel or fights against it actively or deeply, sincerely questions how it translates into political reality or how it accommodates other people who live there. But when critiques of Israel single it out for special condemnation or critique because it is a Jewish State, they only reinforce the equation.
And finally, even if you don’t believe that God is the Party of the First Part, what has kept the Jews going is to debate the proposition that the contract has divine absolute authority. That’s why what has preoccupied the Jews forever is arguing over how to apply the contract in our world and our times. Case law.
The terms of the Torah’s deal inform virtually every scene, every verse, and some would say every word and letter of the original document. When it’s not explaining the do’s and don’t’s of the bargain, it is dramatizing how to transmit it and enforce its terms. Abraham and Sarah choose Isaac over the elder Ishmael, breaking tribal convention. Abraham carefully ensures Isaac’s mate comes from his own family. Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the Hebrew inheritance – this abstruse idealism of the future Jews and the promise God made to Abraham – rather than his own twin, Esau, proving that the Jew thing is not genetic. Isaac sends Jacob to uncle Laban to find a wife, even though Laban is an idolator and a crook. Jacob’s sons annihilate Shechem after tricking them into circumcision in order to avoid polluting their breeding program after their prince, also named Shechem, rapes their sister, Dinah. It ain’t pretty, but it is necessary. The genetic purity of the Hebrew essence has to be preserved, even at the expense of honor.
We can summarize these stories on one foot: the Hebrew species evolves through the selection of transcendent traits of fitness. The narrative clearly is telling us that God is evolving a Jewish essence, a Jewish soul.
The Torah is filled with the stories of failed human beings who carried the mission from God forward nonetheless. So the point is to fail forward and continue to strive to fulfill the mission defined in the contract.
One scene (among hundreds) helps define this. Jacob has married Leah and Rachel and grown a vast tribe while serving Laban for twenty years. He is returning home and has reunited and apparently reconciled with Esau, though he grievously cheated him in order to ensure the integrity of the Torah’s breeding program and continuity of its mission. Esau offers to accompany Jacob’s tribe down to Seir. But Jacob begs off:
“’My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children …’.” (Gen 33:13-14)
When else in history do people let the children set the pace, especially as they pass through hostile territories? The Hebrews are fierce warriors (see Shechem, above) when they need to be, yet they tenderly nurture the gentler, invisible traits of character, disposition, inclination, soul.
In the rough tribal world of the second millennium BCE, maybe during most of the rest of history, selecting for gentleness and domesticity probably hasn’t been an obvious winning strategy for survival. It may even arouse violence in others by signaling weakness. Though Jews sometimes barely cling to survival, they survive nonetheless. The transmission of their civilizing, domesticating program to the rest of the world suggests they’re doing something that works. It has required allegiance to a deal with God that has always been massively unfashionable in a materialistic world. If you’re uncomfortable calling it holiness, then call this the essence, the very definition of the Jew: once you sign the contract, your soul has special obligations defined by the Torah.
A few years ago, my daughter showed me a viral video of a stoned guy blissing out on a double rainbow in Yosemite. “It’s … it’s a double rainbow!” He moans. “Oh my G-d, oh my G-d,” he repeats over and over, “It’s so bright. Ohhhh, it’s so beautiful!” He breaks down in full-on sobbing, crying in a seizure of ecstasy. “What does it mean?” he asks, his mind blown.
I’m not sure, dude. But one thing you missed in your rapture is a curious phenomenon: look carefully and you can see that the colors of the second rainbow invert the usual order: VIBGYOR.
As early as 1520 or so, the Jewish sage Sforno[i] noted that even by his time, the double rainbow was already a cliché.
“Scientists have already tired of trying to explain why the various colors of the second rainbow appear in the opposite order of the colors in the original rainbow.”[ii]
Nonetheless, he uses it to explain the rainbow following Noah’s flood. Since the ordinary rainbow already existed at the time of Creation, Sforno reasons, the actual rainbow displayed after the Flood must be this second rainbow, a much rarer and more startling sight (as our ecstatic friend saw in Yosemite). The reverse order of the colors are a warning:
“When this rainbow appears it is high time to call people to order and to warn them of impending natural calamities unless they change their ways.”[iii]
Sforno’s insight made me think of another secret duality in Noah: there’s really not one but two floods in this weekly reading. I believe they’re connected.
The two floods
The first more famous flood is obviously the one of water. Nature itself was corrupted, the Sages say. Animals and humans alike preferred abominable stuff to trying to reproduce. So the flood washes all life on earth clean, vegetation included. It’s a bio-disaster.
G-d chooses Noah because he’s the right man for the job. The book on Noah is that he was only outstandingly righteous for his generation, and we Jews sort of damn him by faint praise. But I think he gets a bad rap. Go ahead. You try being the most righteous guy in the room, let alone your generation. And despite whatever flaws, we know he’s an excellent boatbuilder at least. But he also had to have been an expert zoologist, entomologist, herpetologist, ornithologist, and botanist to identify male and female of all the species, and identify and preserve seeds. On the ark, he had to be a great veterinarian. And after he lands, he shows he’s even an oenologist.
What is Noah’s special merit and the secret to his success? As God’s chosen caretaker and intimate, he’s a scientist who also knows that the natural world is not merely mechanistic and physical, it is meta-physical. After all, he’s talking to G-d; he knows there’s another dimension to the cosmos. He knows what’s coming and the cosmic reasons why. So he is the only man who can ensure the biome’s survival.
But after the first Flood, Noah’s brood gets busy repopulating the earth as G-d commands them. A few generations after the deluge, united and inspired by their common tongue, all the cousins gather in Babel to “make a name” for themselves. They build a tower so grand, it will have its “head in Heaven.” G-d punishes them for their hubris,[iv] which must have shocked the hell out of them. He tumbles their tower and confuses them by “confounding their language,” multiplying the number of tongues. Unable to communicate, they can no longer unite with one mind and one purpose so they scatter.
This is the second flood, a deluge of languages. And whereas our first crime was more a bestial transgression against the natural order, the second one is harder to define. It seems at once quite human and admirable, stemming from our godlike intellects. Where’d we go wrong?
What were the engineers of Babel after?
Beyond the plain sense of trying to storm heaven itself with a tower of bricks, what were the engineers of Babel – all of humanity, really – after? Why are they punished for their demonstration of human ambition, unity, and ingenuity?
Ramban suggests that they’re after the Tetragrammaton – that most awesome four-letter Name of G-d, but also the one particularly associated with Creation. He gestures at dark depths by suggesting that only students of the Kabbalah will fully understand the mystical meaning of their ambition.
We can guess what he’s implying, though: humans hoped to dominate the cosmos by challenging G-d and replacing Him with their own grandiose engineering. R. Bachya is expansive on this point: “The people of that generation were very advanced in matters of philosophy and even technology,” he writes. “However, they used their intelligence in a sinful manner” by staging a Divine coup.[v]
It’s all about the bricks
But even the original text hints that their crime is overestimating their engineering prowess. As they plot to build the tower …
They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Brick served them as stone… [Gen 11:3]
The Torah seems illogically focused on the bricks. Just in case we miss the point, it redundantly hammers the point home in the next sentence: “The bricks served them as stone.” When we turn to the Hebrew, we see it’s really emphatic. What it says is more like “let’s burn them til they’re burnt” or “let’s super-burn them” [V’n’S-R-P-H, l’S-R-P-H; וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה]. The words just before this are another pair that pun on the word for brick, נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים [n’LBNHLBNH]. Most translations render the first word as white, perhaps referring to the super-heated bricks in the kiln. But the letters might also be trying ot imply something like ‘the brickness of the bricks’.[vi] In any case, the pride they take in their mastery of super-brick engineering is emphatic. They wax poetic and pun twice in a row [נלבנה לבנים ונשרפה לשרפה].
But still, so what? Why the sudden obsession with the bricks? And why call attention to the obvious fact that bricks “served them as stones?
The first, plainest sense is it fits with the idolatry the Talmud accuses them of. The Babel generation turned to idolatry, worshipping stones. More to the point, independent of any interpretation, they are plainly in love with and united around the structure they’re making from their artificial stones to supplant G-d in heaven, maybe encouraged by their conviction that their artificial ones are even better than nature’s.
Or perhaps the Torah is looking forward to the only other time it mentions bricks: when the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt. The message echoes back to us from this future: folks are now enslaved to their delusory engineering ambitions. They worship their belief that they can storm Heaven and overthrow the G-d with their own handiwork.
Fittingly, G-d scatters them in a flood of confusion.
Biology and the second rainbow
Seven hundred years later, we are still suffering from this hubris, maybe more so. Computers and other technological artifacts of our sciences, like bricks, convince us of our transcendent power to conquer nature’s limits, to parse the physical world without the need for metaphysics.
Biology, to take one instance of the sciences, is devoted to providing mechanistic descriptions of the processes of life. Its fundamental ‘theological’ conviction is that life is simply a matter of matter, a complex system of material actions and processes. Ultimately, once we get the technical manual of nature written, human handiwork will imitate life. The same goes for human consciousness, which is simply a product of biology and the complexity of the brain.
This mythology of artificial life and artificial intelligence is ironically deadening. It sucks the life out of biology, as if the science is committing a form of parricide, trying to kill the vital phenomenon after which it is named. The mythology is also ubiquitous. It grips our popular imagination in movies and images and books about robots, artificial super-intelligences, clones, and cyborgs. New companies and new sciences spring up betting on them. The sense is these are inevitable, and the premise that we can replace life with our own works feels like a foregone conclusion. And we’re encouraged by our incontrovertible success. Creating artificial humans is a new Tower of Babel, just as global and just as unanimous. Whether you speak Chinese or Hebrew or English at home, on this we’re of “one mind,’ united by a scientific ambition.
Thank G-d biology works. It’s saved my life and the lives of my loved ones many times. But it is not omniscient nor omnipotent, as any doctor will tell you. And as it falls short of its ambition, it echoes the crash of Babel and its ensuing noise.
This would just be an academic discussion of an old dualism, except that as we choose the wrong side, our modern secular, scientific, rational calculus seems to be quietly eroding the transcendent value of human life, especially at its end and beginning, with real effects on real lives.
I didn’t choose to pick on biology at random. I believe the two floods roped together in the narrative of the Bible address the idolatry in biology specifically. The first flood erases the corruption of life. Noah, the ultimate naturalist, ferries the biome safely across from the old washed-away world to a new one. Then the new generation achieves a utopian state of global unanimity never seen before or since. It’s ironic, because in some senses they achieve the pinnacle of global civilization. G-d punishes their more sophisticated, civilized crime with a more subtle flood, a flood of languages. Call it one of LOGOS (for word or language). He floods their minds with the noise of different languages. Together, the two floods spell BIO-LOGOS, biology, and biology holds the key to understanding the coherence of the two floods.
But from a metaphysical view, even with unalloyed human cooperation on a scientific project and perfect mutual communication, we still can’t get it right. This time, the latter generations didn’t corrupt life with bestiality but rather the very purpose of being human itself. They deploy language to achieve great things, like super-fired super-hard bricks that are better than natural ones, but then erect an idol to their own ambition, and proceed to serve it slavishly, with the collective delusion (and implicit violence) only mobs attain.
Our scientific age deserves a double rainbow. Science explains what causes the mysterious inversion of colors in the secondary one. But it may not be getting the celestial message that more than ever it should remind us of the ways we lose our way and the dual pact between G-d and humanity: Yes, the world is indestructible, the first rainbow promises. But nature will fully yield its treasures to our ambitions only when we acknowledge, with a helpful reminder from double rainbows, that the world is continuously vitalized by Divine attention. Together, physics and metaphysics suffuse the cosmos with spectral radiance.
[vi] Most translations relate the first word to the whiteness [LBN = white] of a super-heated brick, emphasizing the heat of the fires they create. Sforno (see n. 2 above) says one of their ambitions was to challenge G-d by “taming fire.” But the original without vowels might also refer to the “brickness” of the bricks.
Genesis doesn’t have many witticisms. It has ironic laughter (“What? Am I going to get pregnant at the age of 90?”) and defensive sarcasm (“What? Am I my brother’s babysitter?”) and passive aggression (“What’s 400 shekels between old friends like us?”). But witty wordplay is rare.
So it’s surprising that one of the more brooding and athletic characters, Esau the bloody hunter, gives us a great instance of eloquent punning, and in a moment of high drama, too.
Esau comes into Isaac’s tent looking for his father’s blessing, only to learn that his twin Jacob has cheated him out of the firstborn’s inheritance. He weeps wildly and bitterly. Like a Shakespearean tragic hero, Esau’s heartrending plea propels him to a new level of eloquence and pathos:
“Is it because of this he was named Jacob so he could cheat me twice? First he stole my birthright and then he stole my blessing. Haven’t you reserved a blessing for me?” [Gen 27:36]
There is a clever play on words in there, but only in the original Hebrew. So before I untangle it, let’s review the story.
The twins are always at war, even in Rebecca’s womb. At birth, as Esau emerges first, his brother grabs him by the heel [AKAIV – עקב in Hebrew] and so is apparently named for that act, Yaacob [יַעֲקֹב]. Years later when they’ve grown, Esau comes in from a hunt famished and begs Jacob for something to eat. Jacob says he will feed him if he sells Jacob his birthright, which he does for a paltry meal of lentil stew and bread.
In Esau’s mind, Jacob tricked him or at least blackmailed him. But the sages rightly ask, if Esau held it so dear, why did he let his birthright go so cheaply? Nonetheless, Esau has never lost his self-justifying view. Now, Jacob’s deception to get Isaac’s blessing only confirms it. Esau’s feeling of being victimized inspires him, in his grief and acrimony, to an eloquence that is especially clear in the original Hebrew.
With different vowels the same three Hebrew letters for heel, עקב, are pronounced “AKOB,” which means treacherous or deceitful. Esau turns it into a whole sentence in one word – vaYKBayni [וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי]. With a prefix it adds Jacob (he) as the subject and with a suffix adds himself (me) as the object or victim: “Hachi shemo Yaakob, vaYakbani zeh pamaim?” Esau protests. “Is this why you named him Jacob, so he could cheat me (vYKBayni) twice?”
It’s not only an instance of high wordplay, it’s the only time in the Bible the word occurs in that form, so it begs us for even deeper exploration.
The Prophecy in Jacob’s Name
On the first level, Esau is suggesting that Jacob’s name is a kind of prophecy, and for sure names in the Bible have a prophetic quality. They often capture some inner essence of a person’s character and destiny. Yaakov’s father is named Yitzchok, from the root word for “laugh [tzaw-chak צְחַק],” at first glance because Sarah laughs in disbelief when she hears she will get pregnant and bear a son to Abraham. But on closer look, it’s also a prophecy about Isaac’s attitude to life. The YUD in front of the root denotes future tense: Yitzchok means “he will laugh.”
Similarly, “Yaakov” doesn’t mean “[he grabbed Esau’s] heel” or “[he’s a real] heel!” but again, future tense around a verb: “He will heel [Y-K-B עקב]” whatever that means. Esau’s accusation stings at first and seems just: “Is this why you named him Jacob, because he’s a cheater in his essence which you perceived even at birth?”
But as we will see, the word implies something quite different.
Jacob’s birth on its face suggests he has a preternatural ambition. Grabbing his twin’s heel is like a sneak attack, an ambush. “Let the devil take the hindmost!” goes the old English expression. Which bring us to the central problem. Is Esau right? Is Jacob, the patriarch of the Jews, treacherous in his very essence? Is this the man whose name is changed to Israel from whom the entire nation of Israel springs? The enemies of the Jewish people have used this story against us as a pretext for terrible persecution throughout the diaspora. It is the source of an aboriginal grievance by Christianity against Judaism, as Esau becomes Edom, the Roman Empire, and then the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic church. The apologetics of the sages and commentators rationalizing and explaining away Jacob’s deception still don’t completely satisfy those who can’t get past the plain sense. Even Isaac indicts his son: “Your brother came with treachery and took away your blessing,” he tells Esau.
Is the character of Israel, the man and the people, at its core deceptive, sneaky, treacherous?
The If at the Fulcrum of History
But the three Hebrew letters hide yet another, even deeper meaning, one that may contain the key to untangling this single most problematic action by any of the patriarchs.
Add different vowels to Y-K-B and you get yet another word, AYKEB (or EIKEV – עֵקֶב ). A weekly reading in Deuteronomy is named for it, the second word in that portion of the Bible:
“And it will be, if you listen to these rules and faithfully obey them, the LORD your God will keep his promise to you and be merciful to you, as he swore to your ancestors. [Deut 7:12]
The most common translation of the word is if or because. It implies a sense of conditionality or contingency, a quid pro quo, as in a deal or contract to be fulfilled in the future. If you will do this, I will do that. Or, Because you do this, I will do that as promised. In this form, we can detect an abstraction or aura or lingering sense of “heelness” or “hindmostness” alluding to the tail end of a deal. When you leave the womb or the room under normal circumstances, your heel is the last to exit. The result, the end of a contract, will be its fulfillment, the payoff. You do this and I will do that. Its non-fulfillment, the betrayal of the contract by one party, results in consequences or penalties by the other. Moses warns Israel as much a few verses later in with the same weekly reading as the negative quid pro quo:
“It will come to pass, if you ever forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish. [Deut 8:19]
Esau’s indictment of Jacob in his clever pun unintentionally calls out this secret prophecy and also foretells the destiny of Israelites. Far from implying a treacherous ambush, the heelness in Jacob’s name points not to the last, least part but to the very end of history itself, its fulfillment. It embraces the contingency in Israel’s millenia-long ongoing relationship to G-d, and also hints at its end. As long as you keep your end of the bargain – follow the Torah and don’t chase after other gods – I will fulfill Mine.
This deal, the covenant itself, is a big, bright thread that stitches the entire Torah together into one coherent drama that runs throughout the Five Books: G-d promises Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then seals his contract, the Torah, with their descendants. Along with all else it is, the Torah is a document about itself. G-d, sometimes directly and sometimes through Moses, re-iterates over and over the terms of the deal. As they wander the desert and then get ready to enter the Promised Land, He proves to them over and over His seriousness about it, sometimes reaching His Hand into their history with an intervention (think Korach). The deal is simple, clear, clean. The entire message boils down to the one word of contingency latent in every contract: If…
Armed with this penetrating arrow of meaning shot through Jacob’s name, the rest of the story of Jacob and Esau becomes clear as a prophecy of what will happen, illuminating the entire destiny of the Jews. Isaac does in fact find a mighty blessing to give Esau, one filled with promises about the nations that will spring from him:
“Your land will enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew from heaven. You will live by the sword and serve your brother, but when you start getting restless, you will break his yoke from your neck.” [Deut 27:40]
These promises come true. Esau becomes Edom. Edom inherits Italy, truly one of the fattest and most sensuously blessed countries on Earth, one that continues to this day to cultivate beauty, art, great food, and the aesthetic rewards of the physical world. Edom also become the morphing empire that periodically through the millenia “throws off the yoke” of Israel and then afflicts and subjugates it: first Rome, then Christianity, then Europe, then the idea of the West.
The if-ness of everything
Every second of every moment in life is a contingency, an if at the crossroads of destiny between the reality of what just happened and the infinite possibilities of what might happen next. If we miss the bus, we then miss the job interview and our life changes radically from what it could have been. If Polonius didn’t hide behind the curtain, Hamlet would turn out quite differently. If fog hadn’t rolled in on Aug. 22, 1776, Washington might have lost the Battle of Long Island or even been killed, and Americans would still be eating bangers and mash. If fog had rolled in, Hiroshima wouldn’t have been bombed. I’ve written about this elsewhere. If we understand the world as a well-written narrative rather than as a machine, we get at a more profound truth of the nature of the cosmos.Trivial events lead to enormous consequences. Reality and history are “sensitively dependent on initial conditions” – the so-called Butterfly Effect, as the science of chaos dubbed it. In novels, there are no coincidences, just well-plotted incidents woven by the author’s hand to produce dramatic outcomes. The ifness in Jacob’s name points to this way of framing his story. Consider the alternatives:
How would it have turned out if Jacob had not bought Esau’s birthright? If Isaac had given Esau instead of Jacob his first blessing? If their roles were reversed and Jacob lived under Esau’s yoke in his lifetime. What would the world look like if the West was ruled by Rome alone without the Jewish worldview in its origin and surviving on its margins? It beggars the imagination.
The name of Jacob – soon to be Israel – evokes not past treachery but the whole future history of his people and the deal they made with the Author weaving their destiny.
Thanks to my friends for corrections and comments that improved this terrifically: Marcos Frid, Michael Wulfson, and Ron Kardos. Special thanks to Rabbi Yossi Marcus for catching serious errors in interpretation and opening a new vista of meaning in this parsha.
Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket, stuffing or kishkes?
As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.
That may be because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for thanks (Judah). Or maybe because the first Thanksgiving might have had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). But it also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle (at least that’s the way we celebrated). I think the stakes were a penny a point. Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.
The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the Exodus from the Bible. The Puritans believed the Catholic Church had introduced too many impure practices and sought to return Christianity to its “purer” roots in the Jewish Bible. America in their narrative was the Promised Land. They were consciously imitating the Jews in trying to establish both a Holy Land and earthly utopia, free from tyranny. In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were more attached to the Torah than the New Testament.
A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”
They also imbibed the message of the Torah: the souls of Jews are enslaved to no earthly power. As the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe said:
“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of (foreign) rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.
“We must say openly before all, that in all matters relating to our religion, the Torah, the commandments and the customs of Israel, we Jews have no one who can dictate to us, nor may any pressure be brought to bear against us.”
In this week’s reading of the Bible, Toldot, a powerful king of the Philistines/Palestinians in what is now Gaza (sound familiar?) has been harassing Isaac by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac continues to thrive and grow wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac” to ask for a peace treaty.
The lesson is clear, the stuff of Hollywood: The small and brave who stick to their mission will have the huge and powerful bow to their superiority. On this Thanksgiving, my personal thanks is that my soul still yearns to be free and in bondage to no physical, terrestrial power.
In the 1950s, you would think Crown Heights was populated by a gallery of rogues, scoundrels and losers with terrific names like shikker, shnook, shlepper, shmendrick, shnorrer, shlemazel, goniff,mamzer, or my favorite, vance. One of the most chilling, because I wasn’t sure what it meant but it was always muttered darkly, was epikoros. My grandmother pronounced it with her thick Polish inflection, chapikoiyris, but you could also hear apikoros or apikorsis.
Over time, I realized the word referred to Jews who actively flouted any Jewish observance, a heretic or at least someone who went off the path – the derech as they say in Hebrew – in a serious way. But the word had a long history before it hit the streets of Brooklyn.
Epikoros originates as a Jewish curse at least as far back as the Talmud. The sages single out the epikoros as one of the three kinds of heretics, Jews who lose their immortal souls, an eternal death sentence. But the word sticks out because it doesn’t sound like anything Hebrew and doesn’t have any precedent in Aramaic. It obviously seems to refer to the great Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE).
Who was Epicurus?
Epicurus taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real, and he denied the existence of God or Heaven on rational grounds. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, no one has ever brought a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment. All we get, Epicurus taught, is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. That meant seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death. Today we call his followers “epicureans,” folks who pursue refined pleasures of the body, (gourmands or wine snobs, for instance).
That’s the cartoon version. In fact, Epicurus had a sophisticated philosophy for how the cosmos works without any metaphysical explanations or invocations of Divinity. Far from just urging self-indulgence or licentiousness, he said people must behave civilly and educate themselves, ennoble their spirits and enrich their lives while alive because being good is intrinsically rewarding and satisfying. It also enables society to support us peacefully in creating the best possible lives. He also fought any hint of cosmology from other philosophers, like Plato or Democritus, that required irrational or metaphysical assumptions. In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the relentlessly rational heretic, a dangerously sophisticated atheist.
At first glance, it seems obvious that the rabbis’ idea of a heretic and their use of the Greek philosopher’s name refers to him or his followers. But they refuse to admit it. Perhaps they are reluctant to acknowledge Greek sources. (Elsewhere the Talmud warns against teaching Greek: see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous, since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of the cosmos was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today. Surely Epicureanism seduced many Jews over the centuries and continues to do so.
Or perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of building a self-contained Jewish epistemology without acknowledging Greek influence or its competitive view of the world. So how do they explain the term and its origin? Exploring their etymology uncovers both the profound world view of the Talmud and important distinctions between received ideas of the afterlife in Western culture and purely Jewish ones.
Hell for Jews?
Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it hell for stiff-necked, skeptical folk who really distrust authority.
All Jews, the Talmud says, will be resurrected for the afterlife, unless they do one of three things:
Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]
Deny that the Bible’s author is Divine
Be an “epikoros”
Go there and they’re dead meat. They lose the possibility of being re-connected with their souls when the Messiah comes.
When we first encountered this list, my classmate in Talmud study, Dr. Jack Brandes, noted that the list doesn’t make much sense. Denying that the resurrection of the dead is promised in the Torah seems like a petty infraction compared to denying the the resurrection deal altogether. Accepting that our mouldering bodies will be revivified and reunited with their souls is a much higher hurdle for belief in the first place. For that matter, denying that God wrote the Torah (#2) seems much more fundamental. Than #1 and should come first logically.
And then, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and seems to be named after a Greek philosopher? After all, when we arrive at this discussion of how to lost your eternal soul, at the end of Sanhedrin, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets. Those bad boys seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”
Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine long pages of Talmud later, they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad?
Are the Sages too thin-skinned?
Why, he has the chutzpah to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. The epikoros mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or he questions the absurdity of their rulings. He disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He may only insult them in front of others, or maybe just make the wrong face or ask a question that has a little passive aggression in it, maybe. Wow, are these rabbis thin-skinned!
The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism and almost invites the epicureanish behavior it condemns, to the point it feels like the sages constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority you are going to die an eternal death.
Yet, by contrast, the discussion (Cheilik – “Portion”) has some of the most elegant, monumental flights of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted. They aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul and its share (thus “portion”) in the world to come. So maybe when they come to the discussion of the epikoros, we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness and self-aggrandizement.
Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication, informed by theological power, of faith in authority. While on the surface it invites a cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf, I think by delving their subtlety, it only enhances our admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.
The rabbinical etymology of epikoros
When the sages consider the meaning of epikoros, they avoid any mention of the connection to Greek philosophy. It seems pretty tenuous bit of avoiding the elephant in the room. Indeed, they pun around it, as if to cover its big tracks. And later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow the Sages’ lead and construct a completely non-Greek and much less plausible etymology:
Talmud (ca 300): After its first use here (Sanhedrin 90), they later use an Aramaic word with similar spelling and Greek sound – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a).
Rashi (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to epkorousa – אפקרותא – disrespect.
Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah) claims the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs.
Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) agrees with Ramah. Their agreement is even more ironic because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for, ironically, denying the Resurrection of the Dead.
Rambam goes on to explain this non-obvious derivation of the word most completely: “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”
We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R,פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting these words for abandonment with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a teacher-student relationship that has transcendent duties. Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.
Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure?
Why is everyone purposely avoiding the plain meaning?
Epicurus continues to this day to be one of the continuously most influential of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato and Aristotle. Romans Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis of the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).
Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle. In fact, he mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190)! So no, it’s not possible the sages weren’t aware of the obvious etymology of the word. Instead, they insist on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. But what?
The answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name, surprisingly.
Have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience solidarity, intimacy, maybe even a feeling of spirituality or transcendence. Chasidim know this. The word epikoros evokes this, in the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance back and forth across the stage singing verses of point and counterpoint to the main players or themes. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure,” like a corral.
The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi–meaning “on top of.” We use it for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake).
But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo, the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.
Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself to echo this sense of breaking from the herd. He was known as and branded himself as a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. Indeed, the little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsively self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught.
So now back to the word in the Talmud: In his treatment of Maimonides use of the word from the traditional Jewish perspective, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes
… hevker is related to bakarבקר – “cattle,” and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land … this goes back to a general association between cattle and property
Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros! Some wiser-than-thou guy opposes his teachers and breaks out of the closed circle of learning and faith to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, and the original Epicurus, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.
Breaking the circuit between Heaven and Earth
The epicurean in the Greek sense cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, he says, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses or material, empirical experience. His behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul. So why aren’t the rabbis content to let this derivation stand?
I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?
One explanation goes to the root of the traditional foundation of Jewish rabbinical authority, undergriding the continuous project of interpreting Torah: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so to re-appropriate an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions. Their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority. It’s an affirmation of first principles. It’s also a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.
The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars
At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis protecting their turf.
But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all breakthe circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of Mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.
Who is the epikoros? His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because rabbinical authority has to be absolute, equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. The Torah, and the ongoing rabbinical authority that continues to nurture it and allow it to blossom as we evolve, resides on Earth, not in Heaven, with all the human frailty that implies.
To prove the point, immediately after describing offense #1, the rabbis put on virtuoso performances demonstrating the value their authority provides. Offense #1 is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes. But scour the Torah, and the normal reader can’t find any such statement, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know? We’ll show you! And they proceed to so do in a display of pages of exegetical brilliance.
In short, the sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud and all subsequent authoritative commentary, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the written text based on Oral Law, received also at Sinai. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith. They’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine Law. How do we know when a rabbi is authoritative and not just a rebellious sage or a false prophet? It’s complicated, but the Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Shneerson, had a good rule of thumb: less authoritative rabbis, probably the majority in the world, routinely compromise laws to to accommodate the pressures of society. “But,” he said, “You shouldn’t sanctify the compromise!”
By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, Rambam and Ramah and all those who follow are enacting the lesson, self-reflexively: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to a persuasive Greek philosopher, but it really means something else. Watch this performance of our skills … If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human.
Now we can see that the three ways to lose your soul forever not only make sense, they are really re-statements of one principle:
#1 Don’t question the authority of the rabbis because their authority is continuous with the Oral Torah and the Written Torah, which have Divine authority. Encroaching on their personal dignity impugns the truth of their sacred project.
In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that defines even as it demonstrates the meaning of Torah, its continuity and ongoing elucidation on earth through the agency of rabbinical authority.
The Route to Immortality is Paved by Rabbinic Intention
Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. Your road to immortality is paved by rabbinic authority.
The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come,” but the dynamic “World that is Coming.” Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to it. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah are the accomplice and mirror of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road.
In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, visit the sixth ring of hell. It’s filled with open graves where fires perpetually burn the still-conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,
Within this region is the cemetery of Epicurus and his followers, all those who say the soul dies with the body.
After Judgement Day, when everyone else will be resurrected from the dead, they will be deposited here with the bodies they left behind on Earth. Furthermore, as one of the doomed tells Dante,
“… our awareness will die completely at the moment when the portal of the future has been shut.”
In short, followers of Epicurus’ seductive philosophy die forever, just as they said would happen: the soul dies with the body. Dante even sees Epicurus himself on his tour. The only problem is that when they die, the Epicureans are shocked to find out they do have eternal souls, those souls go to hell, and instead of winking out of existence they are roasted agonizingly for a very long time in graves. Worse, those “awarenesses” have to live – or should we say die – with the knowledge that they got it all so very wrong. Finally, when the messiah comes – Dante calls that time by the euphemism “visiting Jehosephat” – those souls are judged. While other souls are reunited with their resurrected and refreshed bodies, Epicureans are consigned to be reunited with their rotted corpses and while others live eternally, they die forever. Ouch.
Dante’s Sixth Ring of Hell is based on a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, (Sanhedrin), the sages discuss the ways Jews can lose their souls forever. They single out the “epikoros” for particular doom. Yet, while Dante was friendly with Jews in his time, and no Jews appear in his version of hell, Dante did not know Hebrew or Aramaic and Dante never read the Talmud. So how and why did Dante echo such arcane Jewish theology? The answer is obviously that Dante really knew his Catholic theology, and it somehow transmitted this bit of arcane Judaism.
Certainly, Jesus was an expert Jewish theologian. And Judaism and Christianity had much more fluid conceptual entanglements in the early centuries after Jesus. As the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, and Catholic Church solidifies its control over the narrative, Jews become the owners of the “Old” Testament. Off and on (mostly on) are persecuted, killed, ghettoized. The Talmud, which preserves and evolves the core of Jewish tradition. Is eventually burnt. But, a few years before Dante is born, Pope Innocent IV called for the rehabilitation of the Talmud and had very select excerpts translated into Latin in 1245.
But where Dante takes the connection to Epicurus at face value, the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their strange refusal to acknowledge Epicurus. The difference between the two versions illustrates two points: one is that the Jewish tradition finds its way into Dante. Epicureans are punished by losing their eternal souls. On the other hand, Dante’s version loses the subtlety of the rabbinical discussion of the epicurean heresy and in doing so illustrates the way the intricacies of Jewish theology are both borrowed and simplified by Christian doctrine. What’s remarkable is that they come to the same conclusion: heresy is denying resurrection of the dead and immortality of the soul and the punishment is to lose the privilege.
For more about the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, see J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife ; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals ).
In the interim since I first posted an earlier version of this blog in October, 2018, Fredo has become a news item as a provocateur posted video of insulting a not-very sophisticated but famous newsman by calling him “Fredo.” The newscaster took the bait and threatened violence. Just sayin’.
Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”
At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.
On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy, a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view.
The events of Pinchas take place as Israel is poised to enter the Promised Land. It advances the theme, begun in Genesis, of a Divine Darwinian experiment to produce a holy species of human being through careful selection and breeding of transcendent traits. The Hebrews pass on their monotheism from generation to generation by choosing children with some unnamed trait that strengthens their receptivity to it (monotheism). Sarah over Hagar, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Rachel over Leah, Joseph over his older brothers, Ephraim over Menashah, the Hebrews again and again select ineffable merit over biological primogeniture. They skirt danger to protect it. They zealously avoid hybridization or commingling with pagans.
If Pinchas (and indeed the whole Torah, one might argue) is a hologram, we could start anywhere to see a representation of the whole theme of this revolution in transmission of legacy. But for simplicity, let’s take these five acts in order.
ACT I: DIVINE REWARD AND PUNISHMENT
In this opening act, G-d rewards the zealot Pinchas, grandson of Aaron and son of Elazar, for executing a Jewish man and Midianite woman in flagrante delicto. G-d grants him a very personal peace covenant (“brit shalom”) and elevates him and all his heirs to the priesthood. Then we are told the names of the criminal couple, Zimri and Cosbi, and their identities as chieftan of Shimon and princess of Midianite. G-d tells Moses to attack and defeat the Midianites because Cozbi tricked the Israelites to worship Ba’al Peor.
The portion splits this opening scene from its natural connection to the end of last week’s (Balak), when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and Midianite woman through their private parts while they copulate in front of the Israelites. Pinchas’ termination of the couple with extreme prejudice puts an end to a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites, presumably also for their immorality and idolatry. Strangely, though, the text only now identifies Pinchas’ lineage, and identifies the couple. Wouldn’t it have been more natural to identify the three main actors, especially Zimri and Cosbi, before Pinchas kills them back there in Balak? Why does the Bible put the cart before the horse?
At the literal level, it contrasts the reward to a righteous actor in the context of his lineage to the punishment of evil actors in the context of theirs. But as we will see, the Torah is announcing a theme as grandly as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, one that will repeat throughout the week’s reading: Identity and Reward!Lineage and Legacy!
By killing Zimri, Pinchas has zealously protected the honor – and more importantly the genetic and spiritual purity – of the Jews. Zimri is of the tribe of Shimon, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, his direct descendent. Ironically, Shimon (back in Genesis)led his brothers in a similarly zealous and bloody attack to wipe out an entire town to avenge the rape of their sister by Prince Shechem, also a pagan. Shechem is also the name of the pagan city, as if to signify the confluence between an individual rape and the collective cultural attempt to violate Israel. Shechem plotted to destroy the Hebrews by transforming their prince’s rape of Dinah into a legitimate marriage and in parallel, absorbing all the Hebrews (and their flocks), settling, intermarrying and assimilating them. We know how that works out.
Now Zimri consorts with a pagan and is also punished by a Jewish zealot. And Cosbi is not any ordinary harlot. A princess, she is leading a deliberate campaign by Midian and Moab to seduce, assimilate, and therefore dissolve the Children of Israel by luring them through sex into a particularly abominable form of idolatry that involves opening all their body orifices. After all, why would a privileged royal family choose their own princess to play the whore and seduce an enemy prince, if not as an act of war? In Midian, Cosbi must have been viewed as a war hero who like Mata Hari is courageously engaged in sedition or “sexpionage.” And Zimri isn’t just having a furtive affair. He is flaunting his dissolution in a corrupting public spectacle of intercourse at all levels, including idolatry, with Midian.
For his extreme act on behalf of G-d, Pinchas gets a most personal and remarkable peace pact from Him and better, a priesthood for all his heirs. Though he is a Levite by birth, he had been denied it on technical reasons. Getting the priesthood now by dint of his own actions requires the Supreme Judge to overturn the laws of strictly patrilineal priestly lineage. And Zimri and Cosbi have already gotten their punishment, but we now see how their violent, um, climax fits the enormity of their crime. Further the immediate declaration of war that follows, though not its depiction, makes sense.
When Israel follows G-d ’s demand to attack Midian, they are not just seeking revenge, nor are they just flexing their new-found muscle as a successful warrior nation, practicing for the conquest of Zion. Rather, they are waging war, on a grander scale than Shimon’s, to eliminate a genetic threat to the Israel’s purity and integrity and thus the Jews’entire evolutionary project. Nor are they waging an unprovoked war of imperial aggression. It is a pre-emptive strike against a deliberate campaign of cultural sedition, an existential threat of assimilation to idolatry, orchestrated by their enemies, Midian and Moab. Thus G-d tells the Jews to both “bind” them [צָר֖וֹר] and “defeat” them [וְהִכִּיתֶ֖ם]. (Num 25:17)
ACT II: APPORTIONING THE PROMISED LAND BY LEGACY AND LOTTERY
Moses and Eleazar take a census of the tribes so they can divvy up the Promised Land once they occupy it. In an extended passage, the Torah details the count and genealogy of each of the tribes and explains how the land will be divided proportionately by tribe (except the Levites) but by lot for individual families.
On the surface, the census is a rational way to apportion the Land of Israel to the tribes, but it does not disrupt the status quo of inheritances. But the census also implicitly tells a story about their fates in the forty years of wandering. First, the good news. Although they faced many trials and temptations, Moses has delivered them more or less intact after forty years. All the tribes report for duty as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Further, they have successfully preserved their genetic legacy from their ancestors in Genesis. The tribes have a ‘heh’ [ ה] appended to the front and a ‘yud’ [ י] to the end of their names. Rashi tells us this is G-d ’s name, a stamp or hecksher on their genetic purity which they maintained even through their years of slavery in Egypt (a “biblical DNA test.”)
Yet the census also paints a darker picture. The Israelites have not flourished. Almost the exact same number exit the wilderness as entered. Some tribes have shrunk and others have flourished. Some were led astray by their leaders (most notably the Shimonites because of the plague that has just struck). Some families disappeared through various misadventures: other plagues decimated them, snakes bit them to death, or the earth swallowed them. Some lost heart. Even at this last moment before success, some Benjamites returned to Egypt.
In other words, those who lacked merit perished. G-d ’s Finger has still stirred the pot of selection and reward of the generations, even before they take the census. As we shall see, even in this actuarial exerciseHe is still tampering, though in a furtive way. Individual families within the tribes get their allocations of land through a lottery. Its full significance of which emerges in the next act.
ACT III: WOMENS’ RIGHTS TO THE LEGACY OF LAND
The five daughters of Zelophechad, a man who has died for a sin he committed in the desert without sons, petition Moses. If they – Noa, Mahlah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – are denied their inheritance just because they’re women and the only descendants left, then their real estate will pass out of the tribe and go to another through marriage? Moses consults with G-d , since there is no precedent, neither among the Jews nor anywhere else in the history of the world, for women getting land inheritance. They win their case. G-d amends or clarifies the laws of inheritance to extend to all daughters in the same circumstance, thus staging a quiet, but incredible feminist revolution.
This scene is the center and fulcrum of Pinchas. Why? Because the daughters’ petition, like any dramatic court case, brings two opposing positive values into collision. On the one side, there is the status quo inheritance followed everywhere else in the world, strictly a dumb biological matter: only male heirs get the goodies. On the other side, there is the merit of the daughters’ and their argument. First, they base their plea not on selfish reasons but for the greater good. If there are no male heirs, and women aren’t permitted to inherit the land, then it will pass from the tribe through marriage. Think of the gerrymandering if, for instance, a county in California was suddenly a legal part of Mississippi. The daughters’ case is also sort of based on the merit of their father, who did some bad things but wasn’t so sinful that he lost his share in Israel by participating in the Korach rebellion.)
And finally, as the sages note, women have a special love for the Land of Israel, whereas men lead rebellions and continually whine to go back to Egypt, and so women merit an inheritance, too.
To note the cosmically disruptive nature of the event, the Torah marks the final ‘nun’ of the Hebrew word for their petition. It appears heavier, larger, and elongated, reaching forcefully above and below the line:
Perhaps the sign recognizes the special love of women – in Hebrew, nashim with a nun – for the land. 
Merit and not biology determines the daughters’ inheritance. Their revolution recapitulates Pinchas’ elevation to the priesthood. On the one hand, he should obviously have had it by dint of his genealogy – he is Aaron’s grandson and Eleazar’s son! – and is denied only because of a technicality. He finally gets it on the merit of his heroic prosecution of G-d ’s will. Your actions in your lifetime can balance the scorecard of blind law and transform it into true justice.
The daughters’ drama also sheds light on a peculiar part of Act II: land is parceled out to individual families within the tribes via a lottery (the throwing of a lot, the ‘goral’). But as Rashi points out, the Torah says al pi hagoral (Num 26:56), literally “on the mouth of the lot,” usually interpreted “by the voice/authority of the lot.” The throwing of the lot channels G-d ’s authority. Its “voice” is the Divine one. In other words, it would be too complex and contentious for humans to apportion the precious and permanent Holy Land among brothers or cousins. Divine will can be executed without hard feelings if it is disguised as dumb luck.
Finally, this third Act, like a well-wrought Shakespearean drama pivots – crosses the border – from genetic inheritance to meritocratic reward, framing the drama of succession that follows.
ACT IV: LEADERSHIP AND LEGACY
G-d tells Moses to ascend Abarim, near Jericho, to see the Promised Land he will not enter because he’s being punished for the incident with the rock. Instead he will die, albeit peacefully, “gathered to his kin as Aaron was.” Moses (selflessly) asks G-d to appoint a successor. G-d tells Moses to take Joshua and scripts several steps Moses has to take to pass leadership to him.
Moses has just brought the petition of the five daughters to G-d. They got a positive hearing. Wouldn’t it be natural for him now, of all times, facing his own death sentence and punishment, to plead his own case, to ask for a break on his own fate? You could argue that after forty years of embattled and painful leadership he deserves to be forgiven, to see the fulfillment of his mission. Others might say that G-d is provoking Moses to ask by taunting him with the view of a reward denied him, or perhaps testing him one last time. At least, you would think, it shouldn’t hurt to ask.
But instead of trying to ensure his own future, or even the future of his heirs, Moses selflessly asks G-d to ensure the future of his flock. His humility fills the moment with pathos and majesty.
In return, G-d grants Moses’ wish and scripts a six-step transfer of leadership.
Choose Joshua, a “spirited/inspired man”
Lean your hand on him (smicha – ordination)
Stand him in front of Eleazar and the community
Commission [charge/ordain/command] him
Give your authority (“glory” [הוד]) to him so all the Children of Israel will listen to him
And Joshua will stand before Eleazar to consult the Urim. By this “instruction they will go out and by this instruction they shall come in.”
Moses follows G-d ’s instructions precisely (except he lays both hands on Joshua). The public performance introduces yet another civilizing innovation into the world: the peaceful transfer of power from one ruler with more or less absolute – or at least ultimate – authority to another based on personal merit rather than pedigree or power. Joshua is preferred over Moses’ sons. He hasn’t seized power by coup or conquest. Eleazar sanctifies his anointment by consulting the Urim, the jeweled device the high priests wears to tune to the channel of G-d ’s will.
And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the LORD; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. (Num 28:21)
The language of this one verse reveals the complexity and depth of the succession drama. First, it neatly ties together the whole act, pointedly repeating the language of Moses’ earlier plea to provide a leader…
…who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd (Num 27:17)
Second, it connects Joshua’s leadership to the Divine mission: Moses has already transmitted his hod – authority or majesty – to Joshua by laying hands on him. (Its intimacy reminds me of the Vulcan mind meld in the Star Trek series). But it ensures that all the people see that this investiture is not merely human: it comes through Eleazar the priest picking up the phone to get G-d’s assent.
Third, it resonates with Act I and brings its theme forward. Remember, Act I first seemed artificially severed from the sequence in Balak, but it separates G-d ’s investiture of priesthood in Pinchas from the bloody narrative. Now we see its full meaning. Although by heredity Pinchas should already have been a kohen (but missed out on a shaky technicality), he still requires a personal exemption, an anointment, by G-d. Moses, too, anoints Joshua, but the human transfer of power in front of the whole nation, however intimate and majestic, still requires Heaven’s imprimatur. What Pinchas earns through zealotry and violence, Joshua earns by peaceful excellence.
Finally, Act IV frames Act V, providing a smooth segue to the detailing of sacrifices to be brought to the priests. More importantly, it reveals the essence of Israel in the new world it is about to enter under Joshua’s command, a dream of Zion. Israel’s national center and source of power, integrity, and meaning is not in its military or political identity, and not in its mere physical occupation of a Promised Land apportioned to the tribes. Rather it lies in the holy confederated activities that connect all the people to G-d by the priests in the Temple in its spiritual capital, Jerusalem. Holy federalism trumps and invests meaning in divisive state (tribal) claims to the land.
ACT V: THE KOHENS’ LEGACY
This final act details the daily offerings and those for Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shemini Atzeret.
This parsha is read more frequently than any other in Torah. It is brought out for every occasion it describes except the daily offering. It wouldn’t be dignified if it was just an afterthought at the tail end of a disparate collection of events. Instead, this play has begun with a dramatization of the merit and investiture of a single priest and ends with the merit of all priests, tying together a poetic composition about a new, Jewish idea of legacy. After all, what could be a more essential and poignant lesson to drive home to the tribes as they are about to born into a nation?
A census apportions the Promised Land to the tribes fairly, though they haven’t even entered it. It’s another utopian promise to the Children of Israel about their future national identity. The Levites get no land. Instead, they are counted differently and their inheritance is the most precious of all: they get the Temple and its sacrifices. They enable the common man to take part in the holy. They are interlocutors between the physical and the metaphysical. The first, often-overlooked part of the sacrificial instructions, the daily offerings, emphasizes this. How can every Israelite bring a daily offering, especially given the vast extent of the land which has just been divvied up to the tribes? They can’t. Instead, the priests perform this transaction for everyone. They are avatars for all Israelites individually to earn their portion – their cheilik – in the World(s) to Come.
In this manner, the final act, far from being an obligatory coda about sacrifices in the Temple, brings the coherence and power of the whole Pinchas play to a magnificent finale. If every part of a hologram represents the whole, all parts are equal. But this may make Pinchas more equal than others. It defines, in fact, the entire character of Israel as it sits on the border of the land it has not yet occupied and its national destiny.
The constitution – the essence – of the nation-to-be is transactional, political and metaphysical all at once. It is personal and universal, bloody real requiring war and violent zealotry, and yet ineffable. Like all good deals, all parties benefit. People of the tribes get land, even orphan daughters. The priests get the most precious allocation as well as a portion of everyone’s wealth. Every citizen gets a line to G-d. Israel is thus transformed into a communal, if not communistic, theological democracy of shared inheritances, legacies, and successions. Pinchas shows these are transferred the old worldly way of the rest of the nations, by genetic heritage, when it is good to do so. But it is also transferred by merit, a new innovation in the history of civilizations, when it is good to do so. And in all matters, legacies are allocated by Divine decree. Either G-d ’s voice tells Moses directly, or the voice of the lot or the voice of the Urim tell us, or His Finger stirs the pot of history as it did in the forty years trek to this point, as the census told us.
And the Ultimate Party to this deal, what does He get out of it? He gets to savor the sweet smell ( רֵיחַ נִיחֹחִי ) of the sacrifices from his chosen people. Its incense gives Him pleasure, nachas, for sublime reasons beyond our comprehension.
“Simchateo,” California 5779
(Thanks as always to my extended chavrusa for inspiring me and challenging my farfetched connections as well as catching and amending my many errors in logic, fact, reference, and interpretation.)
 Holograms work by recording interference patterns. If you drop a pebble into a pond, it creates a wave that ripples out eventually to every point in the pond. If you drop thousands of pebbles, those waves will all run into (interfere with) each other: some will become higher waves, some will get smaller. If you took a snapshot of this pattern of “interference” at any small subsection of the pond, you would be able to see the effects of every pebble that had been dropped into the pond, essentially getting a miniature picture of the entire rippling pond.
A hologram works the same way. If you shine a laser light through a smaller piece of a hologram, you get the entire image in miniature.
 Rabbeinu Bachya explains the importance of Zimri’s lineage as “prince of a father’s house of the Shimonites.” “He was one of five such princes of the tribe of Shimon (Ibn Ezra). Concerning him Solomon said in Kohelet 10:8: ‘he who breaks down a wall will be bitten by a snake.’ The ancestral father, Shimon, had killed the people of Shechem for treating his sister like a whore (Genesis 34,31) and now one of his descendants had himself become guilty of tearing down the wall of chaste sexual mores established and defended by his forebear (Tanchuma Pinchas 2).
 Worship of Baal-Peor, according to Talmud, which involved defecating in front of an idol. This was the same practice Bilam engaged in when he worshipping Baal on Mount Peor and thus the Talmud explains is a continuation of his goal to annihilate the Jews, this time by hatching the plan of sedition with the princes of Moab and Midian. Sanhedrin 64a.
 Which begs the question: Why does Pinchas need this confirmation if he is already the grandson and son of priests? Rashi explains: Although the kehunah [priesthood] had already been given to Aaron’s descendants, it had been given only to Aaron and his sons who were anointed with him [that is, at the time of the giving of the Torah] and to their children whom they would beget after their anointment. Pinchas, who was born before that and had never been anointed, had not been included in the kehunah until now. And so, we learn in [Talmud Tractate] Zevachim [101b], “Phinehas was not made a kohen until he killed Zimri.”
 See Rashi and Chizkuni who point to the inifinitive form of the verb “to bind.” They say it indicates an ongoing war against Midian’s corrupting influences (and by implication, remaining on guard against any kind of seduction and assimilation to a hostile culture). Or Ha-Chaim is expansive on this verse. Among many other ideas he finds in it, he explains the Israelites must both defeat and “harass” (or contain) them on an ongoing basis to guard against “the ongoing machinations of the Midianites to entrap the Israelites into worshiping Baal Pe-or and in indulging in acts such as had been performed by Kosbi. The Israelites had to hate the cause of the sin not merely the sin itself. The reason the Torah singled out Kosbi was because she represented the additional allure of aristocracy plus the fact that she had engaged in her seduction publicly.” (Or HaChaim to Numbers 25:17)
 Some hold that because the Hebrew letter nun stands for 50 this elongated nun is referencing the Kabbalah, which says there are fifty gates of wisdom (binah). Moses attained 49 but couldn’t penetrate to the 50th and so refers the case to G-d and thus the extra reach and significance of the elongated, bold nun. See Targum Yonathan, Meam Loez
 Stars Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) and William Shatner (Captain Kirk), and creator Gene Roddenberry of the legendary 1960s TV show and subsequent mythology were all Jewish. Leonard Nimoy allegedly also introduced the split-fingered sign of the kohen into the show.
(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day.I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
Through a wonderful coincidence, this weeks’ parsha and the Fourth of July fall on the same day. Korach tells the story of a Levite, a leader among the Hebrews wandering the desert, who arises and leads a democratic-style revolution against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
It is apparent that Korach is really disturbed that he has been cut out of priestly leadership, when by birthright, he should have been next in line, and brothers Aaron and Moses have kept it all to themselves. However, Korach didn’t read his Book of Genesis, for if there is one theme about the law of inheritance among our people, it is that the firstborn’s birthright (primogeniture) counts for very little. Abraham passes over firstborn Ishmael to name Isaac his heir. Isaac is tricked by Jacob into passing over the elder twin, Esau. Reuven is usurped by Joseph. Jacob literally switches his hands again when he blesses his grandsons Menashe and Ephraim. Over and over again the Torah tells us that it not your order of birth, the law of the land, but an invisible quality of merit that raises our leaders to their position.
Korach’s real motives may be selfish and motivated from a sense of birthright and a lust for power, but on the face of it his arguments against Moses’ rulership are ones that no democratic, right-minded citizen of America can resist, especially on the Fourth of July. In fact, Moses’ government was an absolute, totalitarian dictatorship supported by a nepotistic class system and backed by claims of divine authority. The very best we could say about Moses’ government over the Israelites’ material and civic lives is that there were some democratic instincts: the court system – 10s, 100s, 1000s, – established a partly representative government. But in the end, it was Moses’ word which was the ultimate and inarguable word of law, a rule by Divine Right. To the multitude, Moses was indistinguishable from any other pharaoh who claimed transcendent authority to arrogate power for him and his family.
Korach’s arguments are so persuasive even back then when there was no successful model for rebellion in all of history, except maybe Moses’ slave revolt against Pharaoh, that he convinces 250 other leaders to rise up against Moses. And after he loses his case in dramatic fashion – the earth instantly opens to swallow him and all his followers – all the other Israelites still complain to Moses that he is tyrannical and cruel. The only thing that should have mattered was their newfound freedom and the holy mission that was the deal for it, but they had proven over and over again that they were more concerned with their material comfort and safety than thundering miracles in the desert. They want cucumbers and garlic and fish instead of divine manna. They are afraid to enter the Promised Land. They are a rabble of newly-liberated slaves who can’t liberate their own minds from their bodily needs.
Given the choice of sides here, it’s confusing to us American Jews. Historically, democratization has always helped us. Throughout the world, we usually found our position improved whenever the concept of equality for all citizens under the law is established. The French Revolution overthrew a monarchy of the Sun King. It ushered in the age of Napolean, where Jews were granted first-class citizenship, at least de jure if not de facto. And in America, we seem to have found an enduring homeland under the banner of religious freedom and separation of church and state.
One could even argue Korach was a prophetic genius, since this is the first time in history we ever hear any document record arguments for universal equality under law – “You take too much power sinceall the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then do you lift yourself above the rest?” – a concept which Western culture wouldn’t re-discover for another three thousand years, until the Enlightenment and writers like John Locke in the eighteenth century.
Isn’t every Jew divine? Who are you, Moses to rule us with this dictatorship of divinity?” Furthermore, unlike the spies and the rabble who want garlic and fish instead of the manna, Korach strikes a high note by acknowledging holiness and appealing to the divine mission of the Israelites. What gives you a corner on the market of holiness? Didn’t God say we are all a holy people?” Have we been freed from slavery from one pharaoh just to serve another?
Adding to the confusion of us American Jews is our bedrock ideal of the separation of church and state. In every country where Jews have lived during the diaspora, we were a minority — and eventually a reviled — religious people. Sooner or later, the fact that ours is not the official religion of the state catches up with us. When ruled by others, the usual results are our tragic history: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, France, Italy, England, Russia, Germany, every Moslem state … . It is not until Western civilization evolves to recognize the equality of every individual under the law, independent of religion, that this cycle of state-sponsored persecution and discrimination is broken. In other words, it is not until the separation of church and state becomes an ideal of nationhood that Jews find refuge. Yet, in Moses’ system, Aaron and Moses are the sole, nepotistic proprietors of the Holy of Holies, and Moses’ word is the final law. Moses’ government in the desert is an autocratic theocracy. Punishment for violations are almost always death on a mass scale, as Korach and the death of the spies and the incident of the Manna Revolt, when God kills hundreds of thousands of Israelites, proved. We would call it genocide.
I don’t have a good answer to the challenge posed by Korach. While Korach himself is dishonest, he raises issues that cannot be ignored. I do, however, have the glimmer of a way out of this dilemma.
The first suggestion is for the problem posed to our secular selves. For us, totalitarian theocracies are repugnant. We have seen plenty of evidence throughout history that they universally operate to oppress and murder their citizens, most recently in Iran under the Ayatollah. On this Fourth of July, we should be grateful for living in the U.S., which enshrines three ideals into its constitution: equality under the law, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.
The second solution, though, is for the part of our selves that showed up here to shul on Shabbat, the part that aspires to be ruled by the laws of God. The key to this solution is privacy. If every person is autonomous and equal under the law, then each of us has the right to a different set of beliefs as long as it doesn’t motivate us to behave outside the secular law. The state has set limits on itself: there are some places into which it cannot pry. It cannot look into a person’s heart, force confession to the secrets there, put those on trial, and demand conversion to this or that belief and compel the behaviors that follow from them, thank God. It cannot spy into someone’s home, or heads, or hearts…. nor if they are guided by it, their souls. The Rule of Man stops at the limits of body and soul. At that slippery border, this parsha tells us today, the Rule of God reigns. Internalize the Rule of Law, the Rule of God, and aspire to give it absolute authority. In the internal empire of our spirit, where most of us are wandering in a wilderness, we should aspire to be governed by the Totalitarian. The Israelites in the desert have struggled, and failed apocalyptically so far, to learn this awesome and difficult ideal. As the spies and the rabble and now Korach and his followers prove, they can’t quite do it. The protagonists all die. The rest are now doomed to wander for another thirty-nine years,
I dare say, most of us rehearse the Korach-Moses drama in our lives as we try to negotiate the demands of a secular life with our soul’s yearning and aspiration.
 The tension is still there, though, isn’t it? This week we read about the surprise Supreme Court decision which upheld and reinforced the separation of church and state. The case stemmed from an incident in Rhode Island at the graduation ceremony attended by a young Jewish girl in 1987. A Baptist minister asked the assembly to rise and thank the name of Jesus for their graduation. The Supreme Court found this activity offensive, as would anyone else who has suffered religious discrimination. [NOTE: A reference to Lee v. Weisman, 1992]: