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.
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’.
When Jews of all peoples don’t realize they are in history, then they inevitably drown in it.
This week’s section of the Torah, Vayelech, the shortest of the year, lays it all out in front of us as a simple straightforward, unambiguous deal. It is Moses’ last day. He has been delivering his final, long speech to the Jews as they are about to enter Israel and conquer it. His passion and concern for the Hebrews transcends the pathos of his impending punishment: he is not allowed to enter Israel with the people he liberated and guided for forty years. His focus in his 35-day exhortation is on reminding them over and over of the terms of the deal: if you abandon G-d, then G-d will abandon you to the predations of other nations. To make it even simpler, Moses in this last day doesn’t demand obedience to all 613 commandments. He cautions against violating only one: worshipping something other than G-d. Betray Him, and He will stop paying attention to you with the special care He has shown you. He liberated you from Egypt, made you literate, gave you the Torah, fed and clothed you in the wilderness, and now brought you to this Promised Land, despite the many times you’ve tested His patience. He’s kept his end of the bargain. All you have to do is avoid worshiping the petty gods of other nations.
And then he’s done with his speech. But before Moses launches into his famous song, a soaring bit of inspired poetry and love song to the relationship between G-d and Israel, G-d takes him aside. He tells him, confidentially, I know these people. They are going to betray me and follow the gods of other nations, even ones they don’t yet know.
Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be easy prey, and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they will say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.”
Yet I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. [Deut 31:17-18]
The root of the words G-d uses to describe His exit from – or at least His disappointment in – His part of the deal – S-T-R – is very particular. It is used once in the first verse and then doubled for emphasis in the next. G-d will hide His face – hastair astere [הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר]. This root word and the image it conjures is used only six times before in the Bible, always to note something about a contract that has gone or will eventually go sideways:
Cain cries out when he realizes his awful fate for killing Abel: Cain realizes G-d will hide His face from him as he roams the Earth as a vagrant. (Gen 4:14)
As Jacob finally parts from his uncle after twenty-one years of deception, Laban, the paragon of deceit and distrust, erects a monument to make sure Jacob will hold up his end of their treaty, “So G-d will watch between you and me even when we can’t see each other.”
Moses hides his face on Sinai as G-d reveals Himself as the same One who made a deal with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Ex 3:6)
If a wife commits adultery “undetected” but her husband becomes suspicious, it initiates a serious breach in the social order (in primitive societies it is still the source of revenge or “honor” killings) that can only be healed by a special judicial process for the sotah. (Num 5:13)
G-d will send hornets to destroy those who hide from (abandon) Him, a poetically just punishment since hornets are so personal and particular when they sting. (Deut 7:20)
Hidden (private or secret) sins are [to be left] to G-d. (Deut 29:29)
Together these uses of the root “S-T-R” – hide – resonate with each other across the tapestry of the Hebrew Bible and the history of the Hebrews. Every partnership, relationship, marriage has an aspect of distrust in it. That’s the nature of relationships, and that’s why we have contracts and ketubahs spelling out responsibilities and penalties for not fulfilling those responsibilities. As in human relationships, the contract between Israel and G-d requires both parties paying attention to each other. “Hiding your face” and therefore your gaze from the covenant, turning to foreign gods and idols, breaks it. The consequence is G-d will hide His face from you.
This would be a mere academic exercise in clever wordplay around the root image, except that G-d’s use of the word transcends the text, and history, to prophesy the future unmistakably. Until now it was sprinkled sparsely through the rest of the Torah, but now it occurs three times in two verses and twice, emphatically, together, like trumpet blasts demanding our attention. To what?
A secret vision is revealed to Moses, signaled in this word for hiding. The Talmud nails it. Rav Mattana tells his students that G-d is alluding to the events “involving Esther” and Purim centuries later.
“The verse states… “And I will hide [haster astir] My face on that day for all the evil which they shall have done by turning to other gods.”
Though R. Mattana doesn’t elaborate, we see immediately what he means. Esther’s name derives from the same root, hidden. She’s a crypto-Jew. Even her own husband, King Ahashveros, doesn’t know. Further. G-d Himself is famously hidden in the Megillah. He is never mentioned.
With this key, we see G-d sketch the entire story of the Jews of Persia for Moses. Haman has sent a decree to all the 127 satraps (states) of Persian Empire telling the citizens to kill all the Jews, man woman and child. We don’t tend to pay attention to it as we focus on the genocidal Haman, but the premise for his plot must be that the Jews were in fact living in all those paces, spread out across the Persian Empire.
In other words, if not completely assimilated, Jews were surely well-integrated and mixed with the host culture freely. And they were doing so willingly. Before the events of Purim, Cyrus liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and sent them back to Jerusalem. He even helped erect the Second Temple there. By definition many, maybe the majority, Jews rejected Cyrus’ lovely invitation and chose to remain behind in Persia. They were too comfortable, too settled to go back to Zion. Was it any accident that after inviting them to leave, Persia threatens to completely eliminate them? Or is it fulfillment of G-d’s dire consequences to the Jews of forgetting their deal, one we see over and over again whenever we assimilate: “They will be easy prey …”? Disguised as the oldest, deepest hatred erupting in historical events, it may be hard to see G-d’s actions hiding beneath the surface, the Megillah and this prophecy in Torah tell us He’s there.
Whether by sloth or lack of spirit or lack of faith, Persian Jews broke the covenant with G-d. We don’t know how steeped in idolatry they were. We can only imagine. Epicurus, who invented the idea of a moral, secular atheism in sophisticated Greece, hadn’t yet been born. So it is hard to imagine the Jews there just believed, as many do now, in no god at all. Even if it was just material comfort and assimilation they were after, they chased after other gods.
On the threshold of the fulfillment of His promise to the Hebrews, G-d brings Moses into His confidence and shows him a vista not only in space but in time. He predicts the far-flung, even eternally-recurring future drama of the Jews wherever they are in exile, not just in Persia. Esther’s hidden identity as a Jew foreshadows the status of Jews many times in the Diaspora, even in America. Here we find ourselves more free to identify as Jews anywhere ever since the fall of the Temple, except Israel, but too many of us simply don’t care to. By now, wouldn’t you think we’d know how this is going to work out for us?
When G-d hides His face from the Jews, we have no protection from the forces of hatred and Haman and Hitler that inevitably erupt in our host nations. History is the teacher here. We don’t need to resort to mystical explanations, or the rationalization G-d Himself predicts we will use: “Oh, He broke the deal. Our troubles came because He withdrew.”
As I write these words, it is the afternoon before Shabbat Shuvah, 5780. I am racing the clock. Yom Kippur is next week. So let me end on a note of redemption.
Purim and Yom Kippur are mystically connected, flip sides of the same spiritual coin. R. Joseph Soloveitchik notes the holidays are only superficially different. Beneath, they are the same:
“Purim is a call for Divine compassion and intercession, a mood of petition arising out of great distress…. The pur, the goral of Purim and the casting of lots [for choosing the goats] on Yom Kippur both speak to man’s basic condition of vulnerability, insecurity, and fickleness.”
The two holy days also speak to our ability to choose which way we turn our psyche. I hope and pray that individually and collectively we find the conviction, if not from transcendent words of Torah then from the lessons all around us, to turn back, to do teshuvah, to the covenant we made with G-d. The message of Yom Kippur is that it is never too late to turn our faces to Him so He will keep His loving, indulgent, forgiving face turned to us.
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]:
My father used to say to us, “It can turn on a dime.” He saw American hospitality to the Jews as a thin veneer, like Germany’s. It could be stripped away at any moment to reveal the anti-Semitism he was sure lurked beneath the surface. He was convinced any nation that suffered us to be their guests long enough would sooner or later turn on us, even this land where religious freedom was enshrined.* And you couldn’t bet against his paranoia. He had history on his side, 100-1.
I guess I inherited some of his dark vision and even afflicted my children with it. I still tell them half-jokingly, “Keep your passports active.”
Dad served as Gen. MacArthur’s mapmaker on the voyage of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945. In 1947, he led his army buddies in Brooklyn to gather guns to smuggle to Israel for the Haganah in their fight for independence from the Brits.
My grandfather would tell the story (over and over) of how he and my grandmother, Pop and Bubby, huddled awake all night guarding the hundreds of M1 rifles and handguns Dad had deposited in their small apartment. They waited for a knock on the door that meant they were busted, or men had come to carry the illicit armory out to the Brooklyn shipyards.
Pop was born in Jerusalem in 1899. His great-grandfather trekked with his two sons and wife, and a donkey, from Poland to Jerusalem in the early 1800s. In other words, Zionism ran like a hot current through my Dad’s blood.
Did he have dual loyalties, to America and Israel? Without a doubt.
Was he less patriotic than any other American soldier who served in WWII? Absolutely not.
Was he wrong about his fear about America and the Jews? For sure.
Or at least, he has been wrong so far.
Now the tide of the zeitgeist (I use the word for its, um, bitter flavor) may be turning, and he tragically may have been prophetic after all. In the past few months, something has changed in America.
Yes, most of us are alarmed about the new tolerance for – even encouragement of – flagrant anti-Semitism – in the “normal” media and even in Congress. Yes, we know what is happening on campuses and in Europe. Yes, the majority of Jews embrace secular atheism and express contempt for any religious belief, a generation before they may disappear as Jews altogether.
But there is a much greater danger. I am hearing Jews express hatred for other Jews like never before. There has always been simmering resentment and finger-pointing among us. Ask Moses about his stiff-necked rebels in Sinai. But now I hear Jews speak about other Jews as if they’d be glad to see them destroyed, or at least silenced. Even Jews who are otherwise glad to be Jewish reserve their worst animus for their landsmen.
I heard one affiliated and proud Jew call a whole other sect of Jews “vermin.” I heard another Jew repeating gleefully and spitefully the news that some Orthodox Jews are not inoculating their children, even accusing (falsely) someone I know well, a respected educator, simply because they are Orthodox. Agreed, not inoculating your children is a sign of suffocating insularity and ignorance, not least ignorance of Jewish law which demands you protect the health of your children and the community. It’s a stupid and deplorable sin.
But the accuser’s energy staggered me. I literally took a step back. His bias was no better than any other anti-Semite’s – or indeed any other hater’s. He painted all Orthodox Jews with his broad brush of bias, because of the actions of a few – albeit dangerous – members of the group. It was clear he felt he had proven the failure of all Orthodox Judaism to live up to civil standards. The contagion – the malicious influenza – of his prejudice is much worse than the measles.
The other day, a couple I love told me that when they announced their child was getting married to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, two rabbis of other brands of Judaism separately said, “Mazel tov – or should I offer condolences?” Three years ago, when I gave my pitch for Jewish unity to him, a rabbi said, “Agreed. If only the Orthodox would …” For sure, it’s a two-way street, and he had plenty of reason to be sore at rulings by Orthodoxy about the practices of other Jews, but who’s going to stop lobbing bombs over the fence first?
A long-time friend will no longer speak to me because I support Israel and I support America’s support for Israel. He thinks (wrongly) that by definition I must be rooting against his team in partisan politics.
“No one will fight for a community that is divided among itself.” So writes Adam Garfinkle in “The Collapse: Is this the end of American Jewry’s Golden Age?” Although I don’t agree with all that he says, he is sounding an alarm. We’ve been here before. We Jews gotta clean our own house as we gird for this coming battle against anti-Semitism. Ben Hecht, arguably the most prolific, successful, and influential Hollywood scriptwriter, mounted a national campaign to convince FDR and the State Department to rescue Jews being exterminated by Hitler. He was turned away, partly because many prominent Jews and leaders of Jewish organizations were afraid that “Judaizing the war effort” would unleash anti-Semitism at home. We see how disunity in the face of the storm worked out.
The sages tell us that when Jews express widespread hatred for each other, transcendent danger looms. They said the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE because Jews talked evilly about other Jews. At this moment, there are too few Jews in the world – maybe 14.5 million, or less than one-fifth of one percent of the world population – for us to fight with and hate on each other. On Passover, we recall that in every generation, “they” rise up against us to try to destroy us. I pray we don’t become “they” to each other. I pray we don’t participate as accomplices in this prophesy by ploughing the field for the evil harvest intended by our real enemies.
Instead, let’s embrace – or at least stop talking trash about – all of our siblings and cousins and other more distant, even alien, Jewish comrades, however they dress or undress, whatever they believe or don’t believe. Our enemies surely don’t make such fine distinctions among us. In the spirit of klal Yisroel, let’s beat them to the punch and remember that we are a single people.
In honor of my grandfather, Shlomo Zalman Porush, Z”L, whose yahrzeit is today. May his memory be for a blessing.
According to the Torah, the Jews exit Egypt in 1313 BCE. Moses brings down the Ten Commandments and writes the Book of the Covenant (the Torah itself) at Sinai seven weeks later. They wander the desert for forty more years, and then under the leadership of Joshua begin a campaign to take control of the Promised Land in 1273 BCE. By around 1060 BCE they have succeeded enough to elect a king, Saul, who is followed by David (1040-970 BCE) and then Solomon (1000-931 BCE).
Archeologists have debated for a couple of centuries whether these legendary figures actually existed and these events occurred, and if they did, how closely they hew to the traditional Jewish timeline. Yet, we keep discovering more and more convincing archeological evidence that the Torah is stunningly accurate both in the particulars of its account and the fit between its timeline and history.
One of the most recent of these discoveries is a singular bit of architecture, the four-room house. A distinctive home floor plan, it appears suddenly throughout Israel at precisely the same time as the Hebrews enter the Promised Land (according to the Torah, 1273-1050 BCE) and quickly spreads throughout the territories occupied by the twelve tribes of Israel (including the parts of Transjordan they occupied).
It’s a simple but elegant design: an extended family’s home, separated into four major spaces. The sudden emergence and rapid spread of the layout was like the popularity of Sears modular homes in the early twentieth century or, even more, the Levittowns throughout suburban post-war America, beginning with William Levitt’s ingenious innovation on Long Island in 1947.
This curiously modern-seeming bit of ancient architecture appears nowhere else at the time. It springs into existence suddenly upon the settlement of Israel by the Jews. throughout the land. And no similar home layouts exist in any of the surrounding civilizations, remaining unique to the Jews for at least a couple of centuries. The repetition of the same layout is so prevalent, the craze begs for an explanation beyond mere fad or imitation of the Joneses (or Goldbergs).
The Levittowns, we know, were driven by the convergence of several factors all at once: returning GIs were eager to claim a share of the American dream; they were of the age to start families (giving rise to the Baby Boom); the GI Bill provided them with instant financing for new homes at a fraction of their costs; the automobile enabled these new families to live well beyond city centers where jobs and expensive homes were; and William Levitt applied assembly-line and modular construction principles to rapid homebuilding.
Similarly, the establishment of a kingdom exclusively for the Jews in Israel enabled them to erect towns and cities atop the ones they destroyed or in new settlements with this totally new design of the home. More importantly, though, the four-room home expressed a cultural shift, a new vision of how people should live together in family units. This new social and cultural order was encoded in their new, and transcendent contract with God, the Torah that they carried into Israel after their forty year wanderings through the desert. The family unit is central to the new idea of the cosmos encoded in the Torah, and the four-room home enabled the Jews to devote the care and attention to domestic arrangements it mandated.
Particularly, the simple architecture – or as Avraham Faust elegantly calls it in a recent article, its “space syntax” – solved a spiritual problem. Faust shows how this new home set aside one of the four spaces for family members who were temporarily in a state of ritual impurity, such as women who are menstruating or men who suffer nocturnal emissions. Anthropology shows us that most traditional cultures have strong ideas of separating clean from unclean and ritual ideas of pure and impure. Yet all the other ones we know about universally sequester the impure in separate quarters. They’re removed from the family and quarantined, as Faust notes, “in separate houses, huts, tents, or even caves or rock shelters.” usually in a “no-man’s land” outside the main settlement or encampment.
While this might have been a welcome vacation or break from family duties, and anthropologists report that there same-sex bonding and community news-sharing, imagine what this arrangement did to the average family, as mother or father or sister or brother had to stay away for what could be several days. We can also imagine what mischief or temptations it invited. The whole scheme courts trouble, or at very least, the loosening of familial bonds and integrity.
The genius of the four-room house was that it resolved the struggle between two temporarily conflicting sacred commitments: to purity and family unity. The architecture enabled Jews to sequester in place: to quarantine the impure, separate holy from temporarily unholy, yet still preserve their other sacred duty to family cohesion. Further, the “spatial syntax” speaks of another subtle message, hidden in the stones: you may be impure, but you’re still loved, still a part of us, still a person, still integral to our well-being. Your temporary state has neither de-personed you nor made you abnormal nor severed family ties. You are not in a state of living death, only in a passing phase of temporary constraint. I imagine the enforced separation at home even invited a form of mindfulness about your relationships.
It is not uncommon for a conquering nation to put its stamp on new territory by building its own distinctive architecture and monuments on the rubble of the vanquished. The sudden appearance of the four-room architecture shows that the Jews did it when they transformed Canaan to Israel circa 1200 BCE. But this convergence of architecture, archeology, sociology, history, and metaphysics carries a much more breathtaking story. By giving us material proof of how the Jews suddenly entered the Land of Israel and transformed its living spaces, it confirms that the Torah is much more than a nation’s mythology, or even a stunningly accurate history. The four-room home embodied a new concept of family as metaphysical, where holiness, intimacy, mercy, fidelity, and love are all entwined. It transformed the new Israelite home into an abode for body and soul.
Thanks to Dr. Elliot Lepler, Marcos Frid, Liki Abrams, Dr. Gary Goldstein, and Gary Leight for their crucial suggestions and requests for clarification.
See Herschel Shanks, “The Four-Room House: Ancient Israel’s Major Architectural Achievement,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2017. See also Shlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust, “Ideology in Stone: Understanding the Four-Room House,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2002.
Yigal Levin, “Ancient Israel Through a Social-Scientific Lens,” Biblical Archeology Review Sept/Oct 2014.
Avraham Faust, “Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel,” Biblical Archeology Review March/April 2019, p. 36. See also the accompanying sidebar by Shanks, p. 40.
Part 3: A Fertile Hybrid: Torah’s Quantum Theo-biological Solution to Darwin’s Problem
“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon,Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3
Torah and Darwin share a mule problem.
Darwin admired mules in general and his own mule in particular, but as hybrids between horses and donkeys, like all other animal hybrids, they’re sterile. The apparently universal sterility of hybrids posed a fundamental challenge to his theory of how new species arise. Darwin stated the problem succinctly:
“How can we account for species, when crossed, being sterile and producing sterile offspring, whereas, when varieties are crossed, their fertility is unimpaired?4
If only two individual varieties of the same species can reproduce but two individuals from different species never can, then how does a new species ever arise? Combined with the other great paradox – that no “transitional” species had ever been observed – Darwin saw nearly-fatal gaps in his theory that even today continue to present insoluble paradoxes for evolutionary biology.5
Surprisingly, the Jewish Bible also struggles with the mule in remarkably similar ways. Though only one mention is made of mules in the Five Books of Moses, that single instance challenges its sense of cosmic order. The mere existence of the mule violates categories of order and acquires surprisingly powerful – and negative – transcendental significance. The Torah abhors mixing species and has several injunctions against it, including some that carry the death penalty. The very fact of the existence of the mule is so transgressive that later commentators in the Talmud tell the story that just at sundown before the very first Shabbat, in the very last moments of Creation, God considers showing Adam the idea of mule breeding along with other scientific secrets, but decides not to. The implication of the sages is that it is too abhorrent.
For both Darwinian science and traditional Jewish theology, the mule stands on the border between two versions of cosmic order. If God created all the different species and constrained them to be fertile only within their type (for good metaphysical reasons of His own), then the mule is a violation of this order. If, on the other hand, species emerge and proliferate over time on their own, interbreeding and evolving in order to create new ones without divine intervention, then how come hybrids like the mule are always infertile?6 Though the proliferation of species from earlier forms is obvious, evolutionary biology seems to stop at a wall erected by some force beyond what its current paradigm can explain.
As Darwin and Torah wrestle with their mule problem, they have some profound things to say to each other. After all, Torah and science share the same world and both are good faith attempts to explain it, and though they serve different premises about how that world exists and why. it should not be surprising that they have mutually illuminating things to say to each other.7
In what follows, I am not refuting or questioning evolution or its general picture of the evolution and proliferation of species. But I do focus on frailties and important unanswered questions about how, precisely, speciation occurs that leave the door open to considering an alternative model, one I address in Part 3 of this series of blogs.
“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters in its significance, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to create skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired.
Most people when they read the Bible see that its epic stories don’t fit modern standards of artistic coherence. Great dramas are interrupted by anticlimactic lists of genealogies. Completely disparate segments are roped together or interrupt each other without apparent rhyme or reason. In the middle of a gripping biography of a major figure, we get distracted by jarring digressions and non-sequiturs. All this feeds more intense scrutiny by textual and linguistic scholars, especially over the last century or so, who note changes in tone, inconsistencies in lexicon, even names for God. They have theorized that the Five Books of Moses is a concatenation of texts redacted – put together – by several editors over centuries. These authors had other axes to grind, such as laying claim to Israel as the Promised Land or affirming the political power of the priests in the Temple. Collectively, this challenge to the belief that Moses wrote the Torah as a transcription of God’s revelation to him is called the Documentary Hypothesis.
On the other hand, as centuries of explication uncloak the Torah’s hidden meanings, thematic, even transcendent, integrity come into view. It has yielded its secrets slowly. Themes continue to emerge over centuries of interpretation with an intensity and and subtlety that cannot be simply explained away as the projections of eager scholars over-scrutinizing and over-interpreting a text like Shakespeare’s plays. Subtleties ripple backward and forward across the whole text of the Bible and tie the whole text together. They are cloaked so well, so deeply buried, and it has taken so many centuries to unearth them, that it is hard to believe they were placed there by human authors seeking to score political or rhetorical points. Even today, the Torah, especially in its original Hebrew, continues to reveal a poetry, a literary depth, and an integrity or coherence that almost demands we acknowledge a single intelligence at work keeping all parts in mind from beginning to end. At the same time, the cross-references and layers of meaning seems so complex and layered, that it seems to speak of a talent beyond what seems possible from a mortal mind, however inspired.
Eight hundred years after Moses putatively wrote it, the Torah was divided into fifty-four weekly parshiot (segments, singular = parsha, not to be confused with numbered chapters used in all Bibles today) during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE). Keepers of the faith worried the Jews were losing touch with the story of their peoplehood and nation, and so instituted weekly public readings. But we can thank them, because the chapters often focus the reader’s attention on themes that we otherwise might miss. One of these deeply buried bits of linguistic archeology lies buried in the chapter Vayyeshev – “And He Settled” (Genesis 37:1-40:23).
Vayyeshev tells the biography of Joseph from the time he lived with his eleven brothers, the sons of Jacob (later named Israel). It’s a kind of familiar picaresque tale or bildungsroman, like Tom Jones, about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned into the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to heroic adulthood.
Jealous of the fact that he is Jacob’s favorite (he gets a multi-colored coat), and worse, a “dreamer,” they throw Joseph in a pit, consider murdering him, and instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. He is carried to Egypt and sold again. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes Joseph is blessed in everything he does and elevates him to 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, there’s a problem: the tale is interrupted for no apparent reason by a lurid digression about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. 
Judah and Tamar
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, he “spills his seed,” for which God also kills him. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the household only until Shelah grows up and then she must leave. Judah is worried that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.
But Tamar seeks to right this wrong, being deprived of a levirate marriagethat will save her honor and status. She disguises herself as a whore, snares Judah on a trip, and gets pregnant. She confronts him with a signet and a staff he gave her as collateral for her services. He admits his responsibility and praises Tamar for seeking justice.
This is also a nice story, but what’s it doing here? It could make a cool movie, too, maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a neat romcom. It even has a happy ending.
Veyyeshev’s literary coherence
On closer inspection, the literary eye is caught by a remarkable oddity. The Torah is notoriously frugal with its description and gives few extraneous details. 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 single prop that stands out in the first part of Joseph’s story is his coat. It is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with Joseph. (And yes, as if to prove the metonymic point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical, and then movie, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) 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 wordless Jewish bereavement forever after). 
The props that stand out in the detour to Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items. Judah’s signet and staff are accessories 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 puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.
Beged, the macguffin
The Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story. Again, the prop for the story – what screenwriters call a “MacGuffin,” an object used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon”) – is 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. We can’t help but notice the episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side. Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a treacherous lie. Yet it also works. Joseph lands in jail. And somewhere in there we have a allegory of justice perverted. Hold that thought. We will return to it later.
As we unpack its imagery, Vayyeshev 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 chapter. Jacob tears his beged (Gen 37:31-32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged (Gen 38:14) to play the whore and 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 Vayyeshev. As words go, it’s a real lexical macguffin.
Sure enough, lurking inside it 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.
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, cloak, disguise, or hide another meaning. It’s a pun, squared. 
Once we tug at this thread, we unravel entanglements with other double meanings that weave the text together:
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 poem about appearances here.
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. But fate is stronger. Just as she 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 disguised 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 in 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, Dina.
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’.”
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 chapter, 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. whose elaborate tribal genealogy is recounted in the verses just before this chapter begins.
The evolution of beged and Design in 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 this transformation in its own small way, beged’s meaning change 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) and remind them of Torah. (Numbers 15:38). The word mysteriously simplifies by losing its alternative, cloaked meaning.
Beged’s other sense as ‘treachery ‘only occurs once more, soon after the events of Joseph, before it disappears forever.
“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 being 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 a pretty 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 beged then does something even stranger: when we reach Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely from the Five Books of Moses, 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, without prefix, suffix, or declension. It appears in its simple noun form without adornment. Beged. It has already shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted, elevated to a 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 the story of 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 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? Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety, integrity, and transcendent coherence in the Torah that only a single 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.
It is hard to believe a set of authors across the centuries BCE posited by the various Documentary Hypotheses could have anticipated a tool like Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, or the potent combination of the computer, Internet and hypertext. These open the entire text of the Torah and all its commentaries to inspection, cross-reference and explication, especially via the genius of Sefaria.org. And only this level of inspection enables us to completely appreciate the depth and number of layers of meaning in, and coherence of. the Torah. Why would human authors have embedded and hidden these intertextual gems if they had no conception of how those connections might have been unearthed and appreciated, if at all? This is my way of saying I’m grateful to these tools and their authors.
It will take another prolix blog to explain why I am biased against the Documentary Hypothesis from the get-go and then expose the many holes in it. I will only say here it offends my literary sensibilities to suggest that disparate human authors, writing in a committee separated by centuries, cultural contexts, and goals could achieve such artistic complexity and coherence in a text. It also insults whatever rationality I have left, inculcated by decades of scholarship and an MIT education. The number of symbols, meanings, metaphors and cross-references that exist in the text of the Torah is so exponential, it suggests an intellect vaster than anything humanly comprehensible was at work composing it. The whole DH affair seems a desultory, cynical and arrogant attempt to sacrifice the inspired poetry of the original Hebrew on the altar of what passes for scholarship and so called philological science. Not to mention, suck the spiritual life out of it.
I also think rejecting Divine Authorship of the Bible dooms Jews – or any culture or civilization – to drift and inevitable extinction. It’s a bad business model for any religion to suggest that moral behavior comes solely from human judgements and imperatives. It leads ultimately to moral relativism and chaos. We humans, unmoored from any allegiance to an Authority beyond our ken, inevitably fall to bickering over the meaning and application of terms like justice.