Torah as Hologram

You come on a small, still pond in a clearing in the woods. Someone just tossed a pebble into it seconds ago, but now they’re gone. You can tell because waves ripple out from where it plopped in. You watch as the rings radiate out to reach every point in the pond.

From Physics Stack Exchange

Imagine now that you arrived just after two pebbles dropped into the pond. You can tell where they went in by tracing the two concentric patterns back to their two centers. Then you notice that the two patterns collide. Looking closely, some waves add their energy to each other to make bigger waves with higher troughs and crests. Some waves cancel each other, making smaller waves or even points of calm water. As the waves radiate out, the whole pond now shows that two pebbles dropped in.

If you were clever, it might be possible to look at any smaller section of the pond, even without looking at the whole, and reconstruct the fact that two pebbles dropped in. You might even be able to deduce more information, like how heavy the pebbles were, how far away from each other they dropped or even how soon the second pebble hit after the first.

Now imagine thousands of pebbles dropped in the pond. Every part of the pond would register every dropped pebble in an extremely complex array of waves. Maybe it would take a super-computer to tell how many pebbles, where and when they were dropped, etc., but the surface of every part of the pond, however far away from the original pebbles, registers all the information about them. You could read any part of the surface of the pond and it would tell a story about the original events, even though you weren’t there to see the pebbles enter the water.

Holograms

Without getting too deep into the technicalities (laser beams are split and recorded after they bounce off an image) making a hologram uses the same phenomenon as the pebbles in the pond: a wave interference pattern (see this at “Explain That Stuff”). The “holo” in hologram refers to the whole image it projects.

It is a curiosity of a hologram that if you cut out a tiny piece of the original hologram and shine a laser through it, it would display the whole image, if in lower resolution and smaller. So a hologram is also holistic because every part, however small, registers and represents the whole, just like you could (theoretically) look at a small section of the pond at its edge and reconstruct where, how many, and when the pebbles dropped.

Like the surface of the pond, every point of a hologram contains a trace of the whole. Every point resonates echoes the original events (the object on which the laser shone; pebbles dropping) that created the text (waves forming an interference pattern on the medium of a holographic plate or the pond’s surface). Every point also resonates with every other. It is a whole – (“holo”) – writing or record (“gram”). We can read the text of the pond to tell what happened before we got there.

Holistic thinking

The hologram is a great metaphor not only for reading a literary text but for reading the cosmos as a hologram. A holistic approach means you cannot fully understand any part of something without seeing the whole and vice versa. Holistic thinking is a compelling approach to the world. Dissect a frog as much as you want, but it won’t explain why it jumps at a fly. You might even kill the essence of the thing you’re after.

We know instinctively, especially when we think of living beings that somehow the whole has an identity and integrity that no part in itself can describe on its own. Holistic healing treats the whole person because it assumes that every organ, every cell, is intimately connected to every other. Further, it knows the body and the mind, maybe even the personality and spirit are all connected. Your dynamic habits and experiences affect the physical part of your body. Your fingernails and hair say something about your diet. An examination of your eye could tell the opthamologist that something is wrong with the liver or heart. And it is a cliche that your attitude towards life affects your health. In turn, the health of every individual organ can affect and be affected by every other. Holism gives us a more powerful and intuitively appealing way of looking at a very complex phenomenon or system than by just picking it apart and analyzing its components

One scientific theory applies this concept to the whole cosmos. David Bohm, an associate of Einstein’s at Princeton in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was one of the most significant physicists of the twentieth century. Based on his work on quantum waves, he proposed a view of the entire universe as an interconnected whole. In his view, the universe has an explicit order we can see and intuit, and a deeper level of reality, a hidden implicit order that underlies it and ties it all together, what he called “the Holographic Universe.”

An associate of Bohm’s, neuroscientist Karl Pribram, speculated that the brain also worked like a hologram. As he put it, the brain was “holonomic.” When you see something new or feel a great emotion, it stimulates waves of neural impulses. Even the firing of a single neuron propagates waves of neuro-electrical impulses across the whole brain, just as waves from pebbles dropped in a pond.

If you look at videos of lightning storms in the upper atmosphere as seen from space, they seem to dance across vast regions as if they were in tune to some secret music. The entire atmosphere is an interconnected ecosystem. Standing on the ground and watching a single bolt of lightning gives you no clue to this implicate order in the sky.

Reading the Bible as a hologram

The Hebrew Bible records an experience just like this. An entire nation of Hebrews, six hundred thousand men and their wives, children and parents, flee slavery in Egypt to the desert. Moses leads them to Mount Sinai. They huddle around its base as he warns them of an awesome event about to happen. Then lightning flashes, thunder rumbles. A prolonged incomprehensible sound blasts out, growing louder. God is talking. The Hebrews are overwhelmed. They can’t comprehend what they hear and they’re afraid the unprecedented show will kill them.

They ask Moses to intercede. He goes up the mountain and returns forty days later with a transcript of what God wanted them to hear, written in the brand-new medium of the phonetic alphabet. Later, according to some interpretations, Moses writes more extensively about what God told and continues to tell him. The result is the Bible, the Five Books of Moses, the Torah.

God’s performance atop the mountain is transient and long gone. Jews have a national memory of the event. They are the only people who claim a deity spoke to them en masse and they survived. They have a collective national memory of a story that would be impossible to falsify. Did millions of people conspire to make it up and then agree that this thing really happened? Would Moses say this happened to them, and they just don’t remember? Would he say it DID happen and their folks just forgot to tell you about it or covered up the source of your national identity and purpose? So the only way to fully understand the Torah is to see it as an accurate record – an autobiography – of its birth, but how? If we take its testimony seriously, the Bible obliges us to understand what God meant us to hear. However, the text is only the trace, the transcript, of this incomprehensible event: the prolonged blast of a divine voice.

So this singularity – the fancy word is theophany – requires a singular approach to reading. For this I recruit the hologram. A holographic approach to reading assumes that the Torah is the dictation of a single divine Author. The hologram models how to read a text that traces an event that happened before we got there but where every part of the text is implicated with every other and with the original event like pebbles in a pond. The minutest part, a single word, letter, the embellishments on a letter – even the silent spaces between the words – represent and register and resonate with the whole (as I show in various parshas such as Chukat, Vayigash, Vayikra, Noah, Emor and elsewhere). Every jot sings the theme of a larger song, however softly and faintly. The text is an interference – or better yet an interconnection – pattern, intensely dynamic, complex hyper-inter-textual.

If the waves on the surface of the pond comprise the text, the pebbles are the writing instrument or channel used by an “author” or actor to transmit his or her intentions. But as we come on the rippling pond in the glade in the woods, we come after the original event is long over, and different readers will have different interpretations. Some deny there was ever a girl in the glade dropping pebbles in a pond. A naive explorer might come on the pond, look at the complex interference pattern the pebbles caused, and say, “Whoah, windy day.” He sees only a chaos of waves and has no idea that someone dropped a bunch of pebbles into the water before he got there. A skeptic might say, “You’ve been staring at the pond too long. You’re imagining things.” The cynic has a completely alternative explanation. He sees the complexity of the waves but says, “It’s just a natural coincidence.”

If we believe we know someone plopped pebbles into the water before we arrived, that leaves us with the challenge of reconstructing the hologram, reading the dynamic traces of the original act and reconstructing what happened. After all, pebbles and waves are two completely different media, one the cause, the other the effect. No number of waves in water will ever form themselves back into the original pebbles that caused them. But the clues are there. There’s enough information to of it. The waves present a mystery. Who was the original pebble-dropper? Why’d she do it in the first place? Was she just passing the time idly amusing herself? Was she trying to achieve something?

Reading in the hologram and Jewish tradition

This approach to reading the Torah as a trace or transcript has a long provenance. The great medieval sage Rambam (1138–1204) expressed it as one of his “Thirteen Principles of Faith”:

We believe that the entire Torah in our possession was given [to us] by the Almighty through Moshe Our Teacher by means of the medium we metaphorically call “speech.” No one knows the real nature of this communication except Moshe, to whom it was transmitted. He was like a scribe receiving dictation. He wrote the history, the stories, and the commandments. Therefore he is called “[the] inscriber.” There is no difference between the [the apparently trivial and most profound verses]. For it is all from God; it is all God’s perfect Torah, pure, holy and true.

Rambam is very clear. The Torah is the transcript of a dictation. It is always already a translated version of an original utterance and intention. As A.J. Heschel put it, the Torah from Moses is already a “midrash,” literally “from the word,” a commentary.  Traditional Jewish interpretations call themselves mishnehs – “repetitions”.

So during their chat atop Sinai, when Moses took God’s dictation, was he fast enough to write every word? Was the new medium of the phonetic alphabet agile enough to capture everything? Did it capture more than we could parse by the fact it had no vowels and so any string of consonants could be parsed multiple ways? Did God want everything He said written, or were there elaborations, digressions, and occult and secret revelations? The Jewish tradition is built on this inevitable fact. Midrash encompasses the entire Jewish interpretive tradition since Sinai, including the Mishnah (brought down from Oral Law into written form in the second century CE), Gemara (which with Mishna forms the Talmud), and the almost two millenia of ongoing commentary, debate, legends, exemplars, parables, and case law conducted across time, space and cultures since then.

Hologram and spirituality

The approach to Torah as a hologram also has a deeper spiritual dimension. An essential Jewish belief is the oneness of God and the unity of the cosmos He created. God did not perform His blast, nor create the universe, and then disappear or stand idly by to admire it work. His involvement in Creation is intimate and continues and compels at least acknowledgement, if not gratitude. The holistic approach to reading mirrors these beliefs.

The final more mystical concept is the congruence of the physical universe and the Torah. In Kabbalah, Torah is the cosmic cookbook. God wrote it before He brought the world into being. He consulted its recipe to recite the words that “He spoke” (Vayomer Elohim) to create light, sky, earth, and life. A kabbalistic tradition suggests that the written letters formed God’s script and were (it’s too tempting to say literally) the instruments of Creation. It demands an approach that transcends our usual ideas of reading and interpreting to hint, however faintly, at a divine creativity implicit in every word, letter, flourish and even silence.

– David Porush, (Haifa 1994 and San Mateo 2022)

Speech/Act: Torah’s Verbal Revolution

The Hebrew Bible invents the idea that we are responsible for what we say.

There’s a story in the heart of the Hebrew Bible about a man who cursed God and is stoned to death for his crime.

And a son of an Israelite woman went out – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – into the midst of the children of Israel and fought in the camp, this son of an Israelite woman with a son of Israel. And the son of the Israelite woman cursed the Name and he made light [of It]. And they brought him to Moses. And the name of his mother was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. And they placed him in prison until it became clear to them what God would say. And God said to Moses, “Take the blasphemer out of the camp and all who heard him lay hands on his head – and then the whole congregation – stone him. Then speak to the children of Israel saying, ‘Everyone who profanes the Divine bears the guilt and who curses the Name of God shall absolutely die. The assembly should surely stone him, the stranger and the native who curses the Name shall die.’ –  Lev 24:10-16

There are many striking bits about this story, but one of the things that gets our attention is that it interrupts a long unbroken march of dos and don’ts. Since the beginning of Leviticus, there are about 200 new commandments plus restatements of prior ones, almost a third of the 613 total in the Torah.[1] If we plot their distribution, that string of commandments rise as a wave that crests and breaks on this story. Counting by weekly readings, the mitzvah ticker goes:

  • Vayikra 18
  • Tzav 16
  • Shemini 18
  • Tazria + Metzora 18
  • Acharei Mot 30
  • Kedoshim 51
  • Emor (this parsha) 56

Afterwards the wave ebbs until the end of Leviticus:

  • Behar 24
  • Bechutai 12

The first parsha of the next book, Numbers, has 0!

So what’s this story doing here? It clearly comes to tell us the consequences of violating one of the injunctions that preceded it, but why this one? Why does the wave climax here? What is the arc of the text trying to tell us with this intrusion? Clearly the Torah is sending up a flare, signaling something dramatic and particular, begging us to search what’s under its sudden glare, but what?

At first glance the episode seems like just a jarring cautionary tale. It even seems to confirm the worst prejudices of the popular atheistic notion that a set of different authors threw a bunch of stuff into an incoherent hodge-podge over centuries for varying political reasons.

Rather what we find on closer inspection is a complexly-plotted landscape – a purposeful terraforming – of words about words, about speech and its consequences illustrating a revolutionary concept fundamental to Judaism’s mission to sanctify the world, to make it holy and elevate it through our actions.

Verbal promiscuity

The key to unlocking the passage lies in a game it plays with the identity of the principal character, the anonymous blasphemer.

The opening verses tell us his father is Egyptian and his mother is an Israelite woman, mentioning the fact an extraordinary three times in a row. Then it names her, Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. But the son himself remains unnamed except as the Israelite woman’s son. Why bother with his mother’s name and not his? Why does it specify that his father was Egyptian? Is the Torah just showing off its recall of ancient details to prove its authenticity? Maybe it doesn’t want to memorialize him, just as media today refuse to name mass murderers for fear copycats will also try to graffiti themselves on the monuments of history.[2]

But millenia of commentary leads us to a more camouflaged trail. Besides filling in the entire backstory,[3] it tells us that the name of the mother is really a slur inside a pun, an insulting nickname. She was “completely (shlomit[4]) the daughter (bat) of words (divrei).” She’s a yenta, a compulsive talker. She’s got loose lips and, by implication, loose morals. After all, she married an Egyptian, fathered his wayward son and dragged them both into exile with the Israelites. She’s a border-crosser, a searcher, an escapee, and not in a good way. I imagine a cartoon character with a big purse, loud polka dot dress, red high heels, crazy sunglasses, too-red lips, too much rouge, big hair and a big hat. Her voice pierces your peace and her words are a toxic cloud of narishkeit – foolishness – in your space. At very best, she’s a ridiculous gossip and extrovert.

At worst, though, her promiscuity can destroy the harmony of your tribe, your camp, your community, your world. That we know her name reminds us of another great incongruous aside in the Torah (back in Vayikra, Gen 36:24)) about Anah – the one who bred the first mule on Earth, the bastard product of incest from the tribe of Seir with whom Esau’s tribe dwells and intermarries. Singled out, we get a shudder of apprehension, an indictment: the bastard Anah, son of debasement, experiments out there in the wasteland to introduce something corrupt and unnatural into the world.[5] The effect of being singled out by name, Shlomit bat Divri, has the same effect. Her promiscuity threatens something fundamental to the order of the cosmos.

As any good parenting book will tell you, of course her son cannot control his behavior. Of course he picks a fight. Of course he loosens his tongue to curse God. And of course he ends up on death row.

The speech act revolution

This episode encapsulates in a few short lines an entire moral philosophy of justice and responsibility that is worthy of a book on its own. The son may be a product of his environment, but he is still responsible for his actions. This psychosocial philosophy of the Bible leads the way for a whole nation of refugee slaves to escape oppression and debasement, collectively and individually. The Hebrews could have embraced their victimhood as the core of their ethnic identity. Instead, they take the cure, a redemptive, if harsh, contract which puts us on the hook for our own behaviors. Even if others oppress us, even if we had a bad upbringing and terrible role models and corrupting parents, we’re accountable. However piteous, explanations are not excuses.

Again, though, why is this act among the hundreds of other possible violations in the string of laws in Leviticus the only one singled out for its own anecdote?

The answer lies in the dramatic innovation in the history of human culture it marks: in addition to obvious crimes like murder, adultery and theft, we are now also accountable even – maybe especially – for what comes out of our mouths.

Speech lies at the dramatic boundary between the inner, silent, private realm of our self and the emission, the voice or noise (the Hebrew word is the same: kol) that broadcasts what’s in there. Speech converts what we say to ourselves silently to what we say out loud to others. As the Twitter generation knows too well, it influences. It’s a form of influenza, a virus, a cultural flu. As William Burroughs quipped , “Language is a virus from outer space.” Laurie Anderson enshrined the blurb in song. Words have the extraterrestrial power to corrupt and subvert the health of the body politic. So first those who heard lay their hands on his head to indict him and, perhaps, like the leaning on the Yom Kippur goat, to cleanse themselves of any pollution from hearing his blasphemy. Then “all the people” stone him to death.

What capital crime, exactly, did our blasphemer commit to deserve the death penalty?

He violated the Third Commandment.

The revolution pivots on a word with a life of its own

As I noted earlier, in addition to all the new commandments that build to a wave that crests at this story, there are re-statements of previous ones, including the Third of the Ten Commandments. Here is its original, when God Himself announces it to all the Israelites at Sinai:

לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת־שֵׁם־ ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה ה׳ אֵת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא׃ 

You shall not take the name of HaShem your God in vain for HaShem will not clear one who lifts up God’s name in falsehood. – Ex 20:7

But here in Leviticus it come with two enhancements:

וְלֹא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי לַשָּׁקֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת־שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה׳

You shall not swear by My name to lie nor profane the name of your God: I am HaShem –  Lev 19:12

And again a few chapters later just before our story:

וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת־שֵׁם קׇדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי ה׳ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם׃

You shall not profane My holy name that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I HaShem who sanctify you. – Lev 22:32

Both latter versions add the word chalal – “profane.” This is not casual poetic license nor editorial sloppiness. Rather the word traces an arc of meaning across the text of the Five Books of Moses that is so intentional and yet so hidden that it suggests an author of sublime subtlety.

Words with the root letters chet-lamed-lamed appear only five times prior in all of Torah, always to describe specific acts of profanity: illicit sex; desecration of the altar and of the Sabbath; eating the Temple sacrifices at the wrong times; and sacrificing your children to Moloch.[6]

Then something extraordinary happens: the word explodes, rat-a-tat-tat, fifteen times in quick succession like firecrackers ignited on a string or drums accompanying the larger theme: the peaking of the “mitzvah ticker” on the run up to this anecdote.

Afterwards, just as remarkably, the word goes silent, disappears. We hear its muted echo in the re-iteration of the blasphemer’s fatal act – אֶת־הַשֵּׁם וַיקַלֵּלet haShem l’hitkalal – “the Name he belittled” (Lev 24:10), a kuf (ק) substituting for the chet (ח). Is “kalal” a pun or intentional echo of the more serious “chalal”? In any case the word is subsiding, changing.

When it re-emerges, it is transformed mysteriously into something else entirely: a corpse of a particular kind.

All Hebrew words that share the three-letter root of chalal, even those that enter the lexicon later, imply something missing, a penetration or, more abstractly, an absence or subtraction that breaks the continuous integrity of something. These include the words for “hole,” the verb “to bore” as in boring a hole;  a flute – a simple piece of wood that is hollow through its axis (core) and then bored with smaller holes in a line along its surface; violation; profane, corrupt or compromised; and even void or empty space.[7] In this context, how does chalal as “transgressive speech” relate to piercing, penetrating?

I suggest it’s like this: Words come out of your mouth, the literal anatomical portal between inside and outside your body. More symbolically, speech crosses ethical and spiritual boundaries as well. Words bore a hole through the monumental wall between inner consciousness, the realm of private thought, and public pronouncement, the outer manifestation of our will and desire. Speech is deliberate, intentional. It is the active manifestation – the ex pression, the forceful outing – of our free will. While we are not usually held accountable in Judaism for our inner urges and impulses, we are always responsible for their active manifestations and their consequences. The harlot in general allows herself to be ‘penetrated’ licentiously, and by doing so she pierces the sanctity of Israel. Shelomit bat Divri is (at very least) promiscuous in her words and perhaps in other kind of acts as well. After all, she married an Egyptian. Her son is her inevitable heir, her expression in both the most literal and the spiritual genetic senses. His genealogy puts him on the border between Egypt and Israel, between inside the tribe of Dan and outside it. In turn, according to the sages, this is the source of his grievance: the tribe denies him a share in the territory they will inherit. This leads him to pick a fight and then curse God. Of course his fate is to become an anonymous blasphemer subject to capital punishment.

This is the founding principle of Torah and the punchline, or at least the pivot, in our quest for how the word chalal reveals the Torah’s intention. We are responsible for what we say to the uttermost extent up to and including capital punishment for profanity, just as we are for any of our other actions. In fact, the very name of the parsha Emor is named “speak.” As the tolling of commandments peaks in it, it seems to tell us that speech act is the paradigmatic act marking our choices between sacred and profane. Speech in all its ordinariness – as much or more than sex or violence – demonstrates our free will, our choices between good and evil. We can profane God’s name – chilul haShem – or sanctify It – Kiddush HaShem.

This marks one of the Torah’s profound revolutions, a new concept on the stage of human culture. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, there is no record in ancient cultures of any law against blasphemy, let alone libel, slander or defamation.[8],[9] I imagine one did have to tread carefully about speaking against a god-king in Sumer, Akkadia or Egypt, and surely all people have always been sensitive to what others say about them (what’s more human than curses or insults leading to blows?). Sanctioning speech as a matter of law is part of the larger transformation of humanity brought by Torah as the first document written in the phonetic alphabet. The twenty-two signs of the Hebrew alphabet utterly reshaped culture. It enabled anything that could be spoken to become permanent, transcribed, documented in writing. It’s inevitable that the nation constituted in this new communications medium are now responsible for their words.

So the Torah brings this little set piece about profane speech to showcase and enshrine its revolution.

The coda to the story

From this moment onwards the word chalal is transformed: it comes to means a corpse that has been murdered by a penetrating wound (e.g., stabbing, piercing with an arrow). It’s almost as if the body of the blaspheming son remains as a testament to the crime, for this is a special case of a corpse. The more general corpse is called a nefesh (soul) or a mat (dead one). The chalal is equated with the impurity of death, in other words, with the violation of life/spirit/soul itself, for it also is used to describe the priest who is compromised – whose holiness is pierced – by contact with this kind of corpse.

If we follow the whole journey of the word chalal through the books of the Torah[10], it begins by meaning general profanation or grievous sinning, comes to mean blasphemy in particular, and ends by being equated with death of the body and soul at once. As the story tells us, “He [the profaner] shall absolutely die…he shall die.”

The message is clear: of all the crimes, one of the most heinous and paradigmatic is through a speech act. After all, even in English we call it profanity. It earns you the double death in this world and in the world to come. Placed before us is the alternative inherent in Torah’s project: the purpose of life is sanctification of the world through our performance of speech, our discourse with and in front others and especially as tribute to the Almighty in prayer.

– David Porush, 2022 (5782)

ENDNOTES


[1] By Maimonides’ count:  http://www.vaadrv.org/rambam613mitzvot.asp

[2] The man who gathered on the Sabbath and is also put to death is likewise anonymous, but through midrash we find that he’s Zelophechad, the father of the daughters who appael to Moses to give them their inheritance of land and in turn move God to change the law. This cursing sinner though remains emphatically anonymous even through thousands of years of midrash.

[3] According to midrash, Just before getting into the fight, the son has applied for his rightful place in the tribe of Dan, which will give him a portion of land when the Hebrews occupy the Promised Land. Although by law he has as much right as any other Israelite, Dan rejects him on a technicality: although his mother is an Israelite as the passage reminds us three times, tribal inheritances are patrilineal. Although his father was a convert and should according to Torah law be honored just like any Jew (in fact the end of this passage reinforces that law), the Egyptian father was not “grandfathered” into the Torah’s contract.  In reality, the Sages admit, the tribe is afraid that the son’s questionable patrimony might wreak havoc. Maybe the tribal elders knew the whole family was trouble. In another example of Torah’s keen sense of ironic justice, the son goes off in anger and immediately proves them right by getting into a fight and worse, profaning God’s Name.

Chizkuni (Chezekiah bar Manoah, 13th c French) explains further: “את השם ויקלל, he also used the tetragram when cursing. Rabbi Yossi is on record as saying that the Egyptians who were ritually contaminated, also conferred their ritual contamination on the Israelites. His colleagues claimed that the wife of Neriah, a grandson of Dan, was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, and that during the night following the day when Moses slew the Egyptian who was one of the supervisors checking the number of bricks delivered by the Jewish slaves, raped her. History has a way of repeating itself. According to Tanchuma, Emor 24 as well as Vayikra Rabbah 32,4 when the quarrel broke out, and a Jewish man accused this man to be a bastard, this man asked the accuser where his father had been on the night when he claimed that his mother had been raped. The night he referred to was the night when his mother had supposedly been raped by an Egyptian overseer, who had used a pretext to send her husband on an errant. The reason why this blasphemer used the tetragram when cursing G-d, was that he had overheard how Moses had used that name as a means to kill his father. [I do not follow this, because if he had not been born yet, and his mother became pregnant with him as a result of the rape, how could he have overheard Moses? Ed.][This is why the Torah in Exodus 2,14 has one of the two quarrelling Israelites ask Moses whether he planned to kill him also by using the tetragram to curse him, so that he would fall dead. (הלהרגני אתה אומר: “are you going to utter a word which will kill me?”)] – Sefaria commentary on v. Lev 24:11

[4]  From the sense of shalom meaning complete as in refuah shlaymah, a complete healing, whole, or like the round impenetrable zen completeness of a circle, also shlaymah.

[5] See “The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment “  https://davidporush.com/2019/01/16/the-mystery-of-mysteries-the-stubbornness-of-the-mule-problem-in-darwinian-science-and-jewish-cosmology-2/

[6]  Gen 49:4; Ex 20:25; Ex 31:14; Lev. 19:8; and Lev 18:21 respectively.

[7] Etymologists trace it to its more basic two-letter root  chet-lamed [חל] that forms words including “a hoe” (it digs a hole), “an ill person” (whose integrity is compromised) “sand” (all holes divided by grains), “beginning of something” such as a process or action (to start something is to break the abstract status boundary between stasis and movement) and more generally a state transition like “a switch”, “a window” (before there was glass it refers to a mere opening in the wall), “removal of something,” “a separation,” “something fleeting,” and “a dream,” (a meaning that deserves a chapter on its own). See Meir Goldberg, “Evidence of the Divine Origin of the Torah,” http://www.nleresources.com/media/Evidence%20of%20the%20Divine%20Origin%20of%20the%20Torah%20Meir%20Goldberg_1.pdf Accessed 12/17/2021.

[8] The Code of Ur-Nammu (Sumer 2300 BCE) has no law governing speech. Ancient pre-Biblical Egypt, amazingly, has left no record of any code of laws.

[9] Scholars trace laws governing speech back to Roman and Greek law at best, as in this by Van Vechten Veeder, “The History and Theory of the Law of Defamation,” Columbia Law Review Vol. 3, No. 8 (Dec., 1903), pp. 546-573

[10] There’s another mystical turn to make with the word chilul but its consideration falls outside the bounds of this essay. Chalal in modern Hebrew refers to “space” as in “outer space” or “spaceman.” In modern science inherited from Greek cosmology we conceive of space as a void, a vacuum that makes up the vast majority of the universe and surrounds everything else. But in Jewish view, that void isn’t nothingness, it is the context for everything, intentional, a deliberate removal. Looking at how Hebrew appropriated chalal and extended it to ‘space” underscores the contrast between Greek and Hebrew views of the vacuum and the universe: in Jewish thinking, the void is an absence of something else, it is the subset of the universe, part of Creation, not a default, nihilistic context for everything. In Torah, God’s Creation, like nature, not only abhors a vacuum, but sees it as part of the greater unity, the expression of His Yichud.

The Adultery-Jealousy Complex and its Cure: The case of the *shtuss* twins

“O comfort-killing night, image of hell, dim register and notary of shame, black stage for tragedies and murders fell, vast sin-concealing chaos, nurse of blame!” – Shakespeare, “Macbeth”

 

Most of us have experienced bouts of jealousy at some point in our lives. It’s not fun. Jealousy torments you and makes you torment the person you suspect, especially if it is your mate. On the way to doing real damage, you are likely to make yourself look ridiculous to your loved ones and even your community. Jealousy is the devourer, a “green-eyed monster.”

Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 11.44.05 AM
Image of the cuckold in Moliere’s 1660 opera, “Sganarelle”

The Bible discusses jealousy in the context of a broken marriage. A husband is so suspicious of his wife, whether justified or not, that he brings her to trial in the ritual of bitter waters (sotah) that establishes whether she has been faithful. Jews often read this portion, Naso (Num 4:21-8:89)  around Shavuot holiday, when they also read The Book of Ruth, the story of the faithful woman. The contrast between the two is too good to pass up because Ruth also offers a cure for broken marriages that are as contemporary as they were three thousand years ago.

The sotah trial – really a ritual is a spectacle. The priests take sacred water, mix it with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, and after plenty of elaborate stagecraft, ink curses and oaths on parchment, grind them up, and mix them into the water. The poor woman has to drink it, a kind of spiritual litmus test. If she’s guilty, the potion promises to “distend her belly and sag her thigh,” make her into a curse to her people, and kill her.

But I want to focus on the other half of the drama. The ritual of bitter waters is also called the “Ordeal of Jealousy.” The two terms adultery and jealousy are entwined throughout this passage. Most popular descriptions of the trial emphasize the victimization of the woman. But the jealous husband’s fate also hangs in the balance and it is obvious that the Bible thinks he is also worthy of condemnation. What if she’s innocent and he’s the one who deserves humiliation (and payment) to atone for his mistake? The bitter sotah water will tell. That’s why when she is being tried, the wife holds in her hand “the meal offering of jealousy” that the husband has brought.

I’m not suggesting the husband is a victim like his wife might be.  Just the opposite. The only thing he is a victim of is his own rampant emotion. The English translation often renders his state of mind something like this. He brings his wife to trial because

“a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself.” (Num 5:14)

His rage is the stage for the scene whether she is guilty or not.

The original Hebrew in the Bible for this dramatic seizure of jealousy reveals this more forcefully: it literally says something like:

…and [the husband] is carried away high [by a] spirit or wind of jealousy doubled “

וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ־קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא

I know that’s awkward to read, but you get the idea. The verb ohvar (עָבַר) has the sense of transgression, loss of self-possession. Alahv (עָלָיו) doesn’t mean spiritual heights but loss of groundedness, rootedness. The doubling of the adjective for jealousy (kinah v’kinei) is a common rhetorical device in Biblical Hebrew to indicate an extremity of a quality, and this ruach kinah v’kineh – blast of super-jealousy – occurs nowhere else in the Torah outside this drama. (It is repeated in the next verse and in the recap at the end of the section). [1]

Marriage counselors take note: the Hebrew word for jealousy (kanaw – קַנָּא) puns on the word for possession (kawnaw – קָנָה), as when you buy something. But you already knew that. Jealousy and possessiveness go together, and the husband’s suspicions may live in a realm where the facts are irrelevant, overcome by a need for ownership and control of his spouse. The wife either defiled herself OR has not, but the husband is definitely transgressive, lost, alienated, out of his head or too deep into it, and crossed a boundary into a jealous rage.

Shtuss

So obviously yes, on the one hand, adultery is one of the gravest matters, disruptive to home, life, family and community, not to mention violating one of the Ten Commandments and therefore a capital crime.

But on the other hand, so is jealousy. When the Talmud discusses it, it slides between the waywardness of the wife and the anger of the husband, implicitly equating them:

Reish Lakish says: A man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly [shetut] enters him, as it is stated: “If any man’s wife goes aside [tisteh]” (Numbers 5:12). The word tisteh is written with the Hebrew letter shin, affording an alternative reading of tishteh, which is related to the term for folly, the word shetut. [2]

The pun, however opens a window onto how our tradition views this transcendentally irrational jealousy-adultery complex and, in fact, the moral structure of the Torah itself. 

Shtuss. It was one of my bubby’s favorite words and I always assumed it was pure Yiddish because the way she said it was always with that unique mix of laughing dismissal and deep contempt.  Little did I know she was invoking a profound Jewish concept embedded in the ancient Hebrew. And like that unique Yiddish flavor of contempt and irony in the word, there’s comedy implicit in the staging of the sotah trial, despite its gravity, that comes from the public outing of the husband’s jealousy.

Adultery and jealousy are twin foolishnesses. They both can unleash an orgy (maybe that’s the wrong word) of foolishness, gossip and disruption in the community if not rectified. The Bible is clear that it was just as likely that the husband was in the grips of crazed suspicion as the wife was guilty. No wonder sotah is the title and subject of an entire tractate of the Talmud that ends with an extended apocalyptic vision of the descent of the generations (Yeridas HaDoros) into transgression and loss.

But the wife’s alleged adultery is at this point only a suspected act. There’s so much histrionics already in the Biblical ritual that if the accused is guilty, she is just as likely to die of psychosomatic fright than the magic bitter waters which promise to “distend her belly and sag her thigh” and kill her. For some, that former fate might seem the worse threat.

Let’s keep our focus on the husband, though. Imagine being so deep in the grips of jealousy’s derangement that you are willing to air your dirty laundry in public. You’re going to expose yourself either as a cuckold, or insanely suspicious. Imagine subjecting your wife and family and self to this ordeal. The jealous husband is a common, ridiculous figure in comedies throughout time, from the ancient Greeks to Chaucer and Shakespeare to Hollywood. The entertainment industry would be out of business without jealousy. You probably know someone who fits the type. The jealous husband – if he’s not tragic like Othello – is usually met with ridicule, which one of my professors called “a kind of wild, communal justice.” But by setting tongues wagging with vigilante gossip, it only makes things worse. Only the priestly ritual can rectify the cosmic, communal imbalance that a domestic drama creates once it flies out of the home, fueled by the husband’s suspicions.

By the way, marital Counselors Note #2: the husband’s jealousy often pushes his wife into the behavior he fears.  Such is the paradox of paranoia. But you knew that, too.

The Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, 16th century] expands on the Talmud’s pun. He says that this sin of adultery comes to teach us that every sin has a bit of foolish adultery in it:

No one does any sin if they weigh the full implications of his actions … a sin is illogical, and so we say a ru’ach shtuss (a deep spirit of foolishness) has entered him (or her).

In other words, though it is aberrant and has aspects of both high tragedy and low comedy, the adultery-jealousy complex captures an intrinsic integrity of the Torah’s entire moral system. While most secular and modern views of the Bible suggest it presents a system of faith that is the opposite of reason and logic. But the foundation of its traditional moral order is rational. The behaviors it warns us against, its laws, mark the sharp boundaries between animal impulses like lust and lizard-brain rage and civil, orderly behavior. Violating its laws makes no sense. Behaving yourself creates order and civic harmony, which are also holy. Plato and Aristotle knew this. Shakespeare did too, for all the fun he has with human frailty and misbehavior. It’s just a lesson we’ve seem to forgotten in a secular age.

Foolishness, fidelity and choice

The sotah contrasts with that paradigm of psychic strength and self-possession, Ruth. Naomi, her husband and two sons leave Israel to find their fortunes in Moab. The sons take Moabite wives, sisters Orpah and Ruth. But the father and two sons all die. Broken by loss and poverty, Naomi decides to go back to Israel. Orpah a stays, which makes sense. But Ruth accompanies Naomi in one of the great pledges of selfless love and fidelity: “Where you go, I will follow. Your G-d will be my G-d.” Back in Israel, they barely survive as paupers on the pickings of barley crop left in the field after harvest. Here, Ruth is only a Moabite woman, statusless, an alien, taunted and molested by the crop pickers. But her modesty and grace catch the eye of the rich landowner himself, Boaz. He protects her and ultimately redeems her in marriage. It’s one of the great happy endings in the Jewish canon.

Juxtapose the two stories and we see that the cure for sotah’s shtuss is Ruth’s strength. The remedy for foolishness is faithfulness, in every sense of the word. Counselors Note #3: Commitment to a higher code, outside our self-absorption in our own troubles, grants us an amazing calm and grace even in the face of humiliation. How does that work, exactly? There’s a feedback loop between devotion to something that is not-self and orderly in ourselves and order in the world we create around ourselves, between inner psychic conviction and trust in a higher order, in a supernal destiny. This confidence in comportment, in restraining our passions in the face of all challenges, manifests itself in things like trust in our spouses and behaving ourselves in marriage and beyond to treatment of our family and our society. Ruth knows – and acts as if – they are all connected. Perhaps that is why the line of King David and the Messiah springs from her, a woman who begins as a widowed, beggared Moabite stranger in Israel, attached to her embittered mother-in-law.

As a convert, Ruth reminds us that we choose our behaviors. She chooses to follow Naomi. She chooses her public and private demeanor. She chooses to be a Jew, reminding us that fidelity to being Jewish requires a constant conscious choice. It is harder and more meaningful to make a deliberate, conscious choice to be a Jew than it is to rest on our Laurels (and Hardys) and assume we’re covered just because we were born that way and happen to like bagels and lox.

Husbands and wives choose how to behave themselves in matters of marriage and procreation. Any mortal marriage is equivalent to Ruth’s marriage to Judaism. A husband and wife commit to each other and to a third principle that arises from their tie to each other but exists outside and above them. We sometimes call that third entity “the institution of marriage,” but that sounds deadening. “Holy matrimony” is a politically incorrect cliche, but it comes closer by invoking the source of healing of the jealousy-adultery complex. Marriage is a dynamic, active ever-unfolding creation. It requires that the spouses consciously and continuously choose it, not just to forestall the shtuss twins of lust and jealousy, but to keep the marriage vital and even, possibly joyful. I like to think that’s where true love comes from, bringing heaven onto earth.

Dedicated to my wife, Sally

San Mateo, 5790/2020


ENDNOTES

This perambulation was inspired by one of the many seemingly off-handed spontaneous remarks during class by my teacher, Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, that had profound learning and depth of insight behind it. He said, “sotah is connected to shtuss.’

[1] The Talmud debates the meaning of this phrase as possibly meaning we shouldn’t get witnesses and warnings involved because it will arouse the anger in the domestic dispute, but it concludes by confirming the shared responsibility: “And the husband is he who will come to act in anger with her, as they will have mutual antagonism toward each other.” (Sotah 2b)

[2] Reish Lakish in (Sotah 3a) is playing on the fact that one sign signifies two sounds – ‘sin’ and ‘shin” ( שְׂ ) – note the dot on top moves from right to left).

The pun has many layers of linguistic complexity relating to this discussion of Sotah. First, there’s a pun between s’teh spelled with a ‘sin’ (wayward) and sotah, the name for the ritual, spelled with a ‘samech’ ( ס ). The letter ‘sin’ was interchanged with the letter ‘samech’ in early Hebrew but is more or less fixed by the time of the Mishnah. Second, the word “sot” and “shot” are virtually equivalent, both meaning “to turn aside from the path” (see the entry for שׁוטKlein Dictionary,  Carta Jerusalem; 1st edition, 1987). 

In other words, the ritual is named after or at least sounds the same as the label for the wayward woman, which unfortunately fixes the focus on the woman’s culpability, not the man’s, and thus fuels the feminist indictment of it.

 

 

 

Too Many Aarons

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from G-D and consumed them, so they died in front of G-D. (Lev 10:1-2)

Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 1312 BCE: It’s one of the most mystical days in our calendar. Kabbalah tells us it’s the anniversary of G-d’s very conception of Creation. The trans-dimensional portal that enables Him to visit us, the mishkan, is complete. Moshe, Aaron and his sons have tested it for a week. Everything works. It’s show time.

In an excess of wine-induced ecstasy or zeal or chutzpah, these two princes enter the most transcendent and dangerous place in the cosmos to offer that most esoteric of sacrifices, incense. Rather than accepting the incense as it did two verses before, G-d’s fire instead eats their souls, leaving their bodies still in their tunics. Moses tells Aaron, with what feels like incredible sangfroid, “G-d warned us this is how His glory works to bring us near,” and commands Aaron not to mourn his sons openly.

Was it a Divine kiss or punishment? Did they transcend or transgress? At this miraculous interface between the supernal and mundane, all is beyond comprehension, suprarational.

I began writing this on Nadav and Abihu’s yahrzeit 2020. In these days of plague that will include Pesach, our mystical calendar is talking to us across the millenia. Too many have become Aarons, enduring the unimaginable pain of burying loved ones without proper mourning.

Yet, perhaps there’s solace for us. The function of the mishkan was to sublime the physical into transcendent holiness. Today, while we wait to rebuild it, its invitation to elevate matter into spirit through sacrifice is everywhere, if we look for it.

Joseph at the Crossroads: Torah’s Godot Moment

There’s a murky encounter between two strangers in the middle of the Joseph story. It comes at a pivotal moment in the drama of Joseph and his brothers, but it’s really weird and begs us to shed light on it.

Two men in field foggy
Joseph meets the angel Gabriel in a field outside Shechem

Continue reading “Joseph at the Crossroads: Torah’s Godot Moment”

The First Media Revolution in Egypt and the Finger of God

If you don’t accept the story of miracles and divine intervention as the reason, then on sheer rational grounds it’s hard to explain why Pharaoh lets the Hebrew slaves go. When else in history has a powerful ruler let his slave population leave in the middle of a large public works project, one dedicated to his glorification, no less? Imagine the impact on the economy, let alone the damage to his public image and vanity.

If you do believe the central story has some roots in historical events – and accumulating archeological evidence shows some mysterious population emerged from somewhere to conquer Canaan around 1200 BCE – then what awesome event could possibly have compelled Pharaoh to submit to Moses’ demand to let his people go?

To delve the mystery, let’s look at the third plague, which is the first hint of victory for the Hebrews in their prolonged struggle against Pharaoh. Continue reading “The First Media Revolution in Egypt and the Finger of God”

VAYIGASH: Wagonloads of Poetry

רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי  (Gen 45:28)

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.

COLORFUL+WAGON+(1)

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!”

Continue reading “VAYIGASH: Wagonloads of Poetry”

Perpetual Chanukah: A Sermon in the Preposition

For my son, Avraham Benjamin, who was born the first night of Chanukah.
“When the hoof of the swine touches Jerusalem’s walls, the entire foundation of Israel itself shakes.” – Talmud: Sotah

Perpetual Chanukah

Chanukah is both alarming and comforting. Jews are struggling with the growing sense that it’s happening again. Less than eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is on the rise in the West. I don’t need to recount the litany of current events and the fear they’re causing. I’m alarmed that we’re still fighting the culture war it commemorates.

The lights and prayers give psychic comfort and hope. They are also the actual weapons to resist the dark tide of history.

Here’s what I mean. On the first night of Chanukah 1st night chanukahwe 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 lazmanto 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.

Continue reading “Perpetual Chanukah: A Sermon in the Preposition”

Uncloaking the Transcendent Textuality of the Torah

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146

The biography of Joseph is a familiar kind of 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 original Hebrew, reveals a rich warp and woof of hidden cross-references so intense that it feels like a transcendentally talented artist of wordplay and allusion is at work – a super  James Joyce or Adrienne Rich.

The Joseph story in brief

Jealous of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son (he gets a multi-colored coat) and, even worse, that he’s a vain, grandiose “dreamer,” his brothers throw him in a pit. They consider murdering him, but instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. After the brothers are rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, to imply that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the Jewish sign of bereavement forever after) and he cries.[1]

941px-Diego_Velázquez_065Joseph’s Coat, by Diego Velázquez (1630)

Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites carry Joseph to Egypt and sell him. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes that 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 a 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 probably cut a couple of problematic parts and its apparently 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. It doesn’t seem to advance or even connect to the main narrative. But let’s look at it, because it cloaks a couple of interesting features.[2]

Judah and Tamar in brief

Judah has three sons. The eldest marries a woman named Tamar but later dies. The second son, 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 by protecting his son, Judah deprives Tamar of her rightful betrothal to the last surviving brother-in-law (called a levirate marriage). Shelah is supposed to save her honor and guarantee her material support. To get their attention, and out of desperation, Tamar disguises herself as a harlot, snares Judah on a road trip, and gets pregnant by him. Judah doesn’t have cash on him for the transaction, so as an honorable man he leaves his signet ring and staff with her as collateral. Three months later, when her pregnancy is visible, Tamar is hauled before the court as a harlot. Judah, in one of the great literary ironies in the Torah, is the chief justice. He is about to sentence her to death by burning when she confronts him with his own signet and staff. Instead of running for cover in embarrassment, he admits his responsibility (would that all public figures and judges issue so full-throated a confession) and even praises Tamar for seeking justice.

This is also a nice story. It could make a cool movie on its own – maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a brisk, ironic ninety-minute rom com nonetheless. 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 traditional Jewish approach to explicating the Torah is to assume it is famously frugal, parsimonious: it has no extraneous details, no decorative redundancies, no coincidences, no accidental or frivolous puns. If things don’t make sense on first glance, that very incongruity signals a deeper intentiologic or message lurking beneath. So on closer inspection, the literary eye sees not only the jarring digression from Joseph to the story of Judah and Tamar but another remarkable oddity. Because there’s so little other color within this story, when props are brought on stage they get our attention. In fact, they seem like unavoidable 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 The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) The brothers bring the torn, bloody coat to Isaac.

The props that stand out in the digression about Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department. And then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us that 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.

When the Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story, the prop is again an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much that she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly that he leaves it in her hand. Then, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside as proof of her claims that Joseph tried to rape her.

Beged, the MacGuffin

Screenwriters call this type of object a “MacGuffin,”something with little clear intrinsic value that is used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon,” the letters of transit in “Casablanca”, or the rug in “The Big Lebowski”). Now that we see it, we can 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 (ד-ג-ב, B-G-D). It rings like a bell through the story. Jacob tears his beged (Genesis 37:31–32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged to play the whore (38:14). 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, the word beged occurs six times just in this part of the chapter (39:12–18), and twelve times throughout the Torah reading of Vayeishev. As words go, it’s a real lexical MacGuffin.

Veiled meanings

Sure enough, lurking inside the word lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both 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 and instead sell him 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 Judah 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 also can’t help but notice that 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.)

Each occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is itself 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.[3]

Once we tug at this literary 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’.[4] That would make a fine verse in a poem about appearances here.

The word billows out

With our eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billowing out to implicate other events – not just in this portion, but throughout Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another bit of cloth, article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious that 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. ( 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

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 Jewish history as God chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for 20 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.

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 (Genesis 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes to Isaac too late to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadav). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’,” they say.[5]

In the end, although 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 throughout the 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, the meaning of beged changes as we move 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; the garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified; 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.

The only place in Exodus where beged retains its sense of ‘treachery’, before it disappears forever, occurs soon after the events of Joseph. It is a law in Exodus 21:8 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 [bevigdo] with her.”

We are subtly reminded of Vayeishev. 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.

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. There is just one remarkable exception:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s garment as pledge [collateral].” (Deuteronomy 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 even-handedly, 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 late recurrence of the word beged, 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 the 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 cloaked 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 Their mind?


ENDNOTES

[1] 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).

[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.

[3] The technical word for this is “paronomasia.”

[4] Rashi on Torah.

[5] Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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.

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