Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for the ‘Pentateuch’ Category

GerizimDeuteronomy 27: 9 – 26  Ki Tavo

This event takes place towards the end of the forty years in the wilderness and in the last days of Moses’ life. Moses  prepares the Israelites for their new life after his own death, in the promised land, under the leadership of Joshua.

He then delineates a ceremony of blessings and curses which will take place after the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, at which time Moses will no longer accompany them. The leadership will have passed to Joshua. The tribes will be divided into two groups. Six tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim, to the south, and pronounce blessings. The other six are to stand on Mount Ebal, north-east, and pronounce curses. The tribes sent to Gerizim are Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. The tribes who have the unfortunate job of presiding over the curses are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The curses are spoken by Levites who anathemize those who make graven images; those who treat their parents badly; those who move a neighbour’s landmark; those who lead the blind astray; those who subvert the cause of widows and orphans; those who sleep with their father’s wife, with their sister, or their mother-in-law; those who have sex with an animal, those who commit physical assault in secret, paid assassins and those who do not adhere to these commandments.

There are twelve curses, matching the number of the tribes.

Mount Ebal is in biblical Shechem, now Nablus on the West Bank.

There are several questions raised by the text and not answered. Why are the curses issued from Mount Ebal, which later became the site of an Israelite altar, constructed from stones? Why are the blessings from Mount Gerizim, which later became the Sanctuary of the Samaritan sect?

Some commentators – Samson Raphael Hirsch for example – reasoned that Gerizim was fertile and Ebal rugged. In the thirteenth century, Nachmanides noted that as Gerizim, was to the south, it was at the right hand when one faced east to pray. It’s also suggested that the southern position of Gerizim placed it in the territory of Judah  while Ebal stood in what was to become the Northern Kingdom.

As for the Samaritan view of the sanctity of Gerizim, this is somewhat backed up by a passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls version of Deuteronomy, which says:

When you have crossed the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about  which I charge you today, on Mount Gerizim, and coat them with plaster.  And there, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God.

The verse in the Masoretic text, that’s the chumash you may have in front of you, and in our Sefer Torah, says:

And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. (Deuteronomy 27:4)

Then there’s the question of who were Samaritans. The name comes from Shomrim, meaning keepers or guards, just as the geographical area of Samaria is called Shomron in Hebrew. They claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and split with  mainstream Israelite observances by locating their sanctuary on Mount Gerizim. At that time, the period of the judges, the official sanctuary was in Shiloh. The Samaritans have their own version of the Pentateuch, written in a script resembling palaeo-Hebrew and containing mostly minor but numerous variations from our Masoretic text. We don’t know the age of the Samaritan pentateuch, but some of these variations occur likewise in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint, so it’s old, perhaps from the time of the Second Temple. The Samaritans don’t count the prophets or the hagiographa – the Ketuvim – as scriptural. They just have the five books of the chumash.

Now there’s another question  without any definite answer, relating to this Torah reading. How were the tribes divided? What did it signify, if your tribe was doing the blessings from Gerizim or the curses from Ebal? It seems to me that the tribes doing the blessing, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin are the A list, with the possible exception of Issachar. Those standing on Mount Ebal are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher were  descended from Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Reuben and Zebulun are the oldest and youngest sons of Leah. It is also interesting that the descendants of the Ebal tribes are less notable than the royal, priestly and messianic issue of the Gerizim tribes.

According to my counting, twelve curses are to be uttered on Mount Ebal and, as you will hear, a dozen times it is repeated that all the people will say Amen. Their peoplehood is expressed in the unity with which they accept the Torah of Moses and shun the ways which are forbidden, cursed. As you know, the word ‘amen’ is connected with the word for faith, emunah, but it has traveled a long way, as it appears in the Greek of the New Testament and is used in Muslim prayer with the same meaning. I find there is something a bit magical about the word Amen. Listen to it, as it’s repeated in out Torah reading, from Deuteronomy 27.

For a man who was slow of speech and meeker than anyone alive, this is quite a speech, where Moses addresses the Israelites on the last day of his life. Haazinu hashamayim meaning ‘Give ear O heavens,’ are the opening words of the penultimate sidra in our scroll. Moses does not speak of himself at all, except to say, ‘I speak’ and ‘I call,’ for this long poem which comprises his speech is a song of praise to God. Moses refers to God as Tsur, meaning rock, Elyon, meaning the highest and Avicha kanecha, your Father who made you. Many of the sayings in this portion are familiar from our liturgy. The poem invokes the infidelity of the Israelites, contrasted with God’s faithfulness and justice. The people of Israel are called Jacob and Yeshurun, meaning ‘the upright’ in the sense of upright morality, yet Moses accuses thrm of being wayward and provocative. Nevertheless, he says, God shelters them beneath His wings.

This poem in Deuteronomy 32, is called The Song of Moses. You might be reminded of Shirat ha Yam, the Song at the Sea, in Exodus 15, which is sometimes called the song of Moses and Miriam. There are other songs in the bible – notably the Psalms of David, but also Deborah’s song in Judges and Hannah’s in 1 Samuel. Jonah sings a song of praise inside the whale. The Song of Songs is an entirely poetic book of the bible, attributed to Solomon but Jeremiah also has a song book, much more mournful in tone: the Book of Lamentations.

Some of these songs do not mention the life and situation of the putative singer and would not look out of place in the book of Psalms.

The Song of Moses takes place on the final day of his life but these are not his last words. Like Jacob, he blesses the individual tribes before his death in a speech which begins with the words ‘Vezot ha berachah – And this is the blessing.’ After he has finished speaking, God sends him to the top of Mount Nebo and shows Moses the promised land, which he will never reach. Moses dies there on the mountain, and thus the fifth book of the pentateuch is brought to a close. On Simchat Torah, we shall be reading the last part of Vezot Haberachah, right at the end of Deuteronomy, as we conclude the cycle of Torah readings, before beginning again at once with Bereshit.

October 2016


I never take much notice of the Eurovision Song Contest, least of all the songs, but I sometimes watch the voting, with some slight interest in how countries often vote in clusters. The Balkan countries back each other and the Danes and Swedes seem to have a reciprocal arrangement, while the UK and Ireland give each other a bounce on the voting board, as if Gerry Adams had never existed.

The strange thing is that neighbouring countries are as likely to go to war across the border as to appreciate each other’s musical artistry.

I wondered how it would have worked in biblical antiquity. After all, the Ammonites and the Moabites were related to Terach, same as Abraham, and even the wicked Amalekites were descended from Isaac, via Esau.

As for the Canaanites whose land is spied out by Moses’ agents, would they bestow their douze points on the Israelites, or take revenge on them by giving everything to the Jebusites, the Amorites and the Hittites?

The spies Moses sent into Canaan brought back disheartening reports of giants inhabiting the land, but they’d noted that it was rich and fertile and they coined the phrase, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

The word supposed to mean giants is Nephilim, fallen ones, suggestive of fallen angels, in other words, beings possessed of supernatural power. Everyone was afraid, except for Joshua and Caleb, who were convinced that they could gain the land by conquest. As usual, the people blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt, where they said they’d been better off. You can imagine how they would have been ready to give Egypt all their points in the North East Africa Song Contest.

The people were so rebellious that God said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me?’ and was about to smite them with a plague, only Moses pleaded with God, on behalf of the Israelites. God then replied ‘Salachti kidvareycha’ – ‘I have forgiven, according to your word.’

However, that generation of Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness and never reached the promised land, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, who had not despaired or rebelled against God.

Joshua would go on to enjoy good relations with a Canaanite woman called Rahab, who sheltered Joshua’s Israelite spies before the Battle of Jericho, described in the book of Joshua. In Midrash, Rahab is a beautiful prostitute, or possibly an innkeeper, and these midrashic versions are quite romantic because Joshua marries Rahab, even though she’s a Canaanite. The people across the border – what are they, enemies or neighbours? And can they sing?


written on the day of an EU Referendum in the UK, 23 June 2016

Acharei Mot  Leviticus 16: 1 – 17


The sidra is what you might call hard core Temple cult, involving animal sacrifices, incense and the prescribed clothing of the high priest. As far removed as this is from Judaism as we practice it, there is a very familiar component in the ritual, and that is the two goats which we invoke on Yom Kippur, the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat, whose life expectancy is even shorter than that of the scapegoat.

You will hear the word kaporet several times. This was the cover of the ark, adorned with two Cherubim, in the Holy of Holies, which the High Priest entered only on Yom Kippur. The letters of the word  kippur, atonement, are also in the word kaporet, and the linguistic connection may indicate a view of atonement as a kind of covering of sin. You will also hear the word parochet, a curtain in front of the ark, such as we have here, on the ark doors. It’s often translated as ‘veil’ and the kaporet often as ‘the mercy seat’.

The name of the sidra is Acharei Mot, meaning, ‘After the death.’  It refers to two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu , who died during their priestly duties, while offering the wrong kind of fire on the altar. Rabbinic tradition attributes this misadventure to some fault in their attitude, rather than tragic happenstance. Specifically, a midrashic commentary explains that they were drunk when they approached the altar.

The instructions which God gives Moses to impart to Aaron are a detailed blueprint concerning the conduct and procedure of the priests presiding over the altar, designed to protect them from the kind of sudden death which befell Nadav and Abihu. Whenever we read ‘God said to Moses, “Speak to Aaron,”’ we are not looking at a conversation between brothers, but at the laws concerning the priesthood, which is personified by Aaron, the first Cohen HaGadol or High Priest. There are requirements of dress, in fine linen, of bathing and of course, rules concerning the different animals for sacrifice: the young bull, the ram and the two goats, familiar to us from our Yom Kippur Mussaf service: the goat for the Lord and the goat for Azazel.

A lot is cast to determine which of the goats is destined for the sacrificial altar, as a sin-offering, and which is destined for the wilderness, and Azazel. These life and death matters are guided by the minutiae of ritual set forth in Leviticus, the priestly handbook. As the sons of  Aaron were killed by so-called strange fire while officiating at the altar, it was considered that there was an element of mortal danger in carrying out priestly duties. God’s words to Moses, to be conveyed to Aaron, are to ensure that there are no more fatal slip-ups in the execution of sacrificial practices.

We use the word scapegoat, which was coined by William Tyndale, translating the bible into English,  in the time of King Henry VIII. The word scapegoat implies blame or punishment, and the selection of two goats is typical of a binary system of sacrifice, suggesting opposing sacred and profane symbolism. We see such distinctions between the pairs of brothers in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob. Cain, Ishmael and Esau survive, like the scapegoat, but are sent away, into the equivalence of the wilderness.

A word about Azazel.

The most detailed accounts of Azazel are found in the apocryphal books of Enoch where he is identified as a fallen angel who teaches people to make weapons, jewellery, and cosmetics. The books of Enoch are post-biblical but the authors use texts from Genesis and Daniel to create a detailed angelology, which is absent from the bible.

The medieval commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra, no doubt smoothing over a residue of polytheism in the biblical text, suggested that Azazel was a place name, a rugged mountain from whence the goat was pushed, but Nachmanides, taking the goat by the horns, commented that Azazel belongs to the class of goat-like demons of the desert, known via Mesopotamian mythology.

Midrash identifies the scapegoat (seir) with Esau who was called Seir, meaning  hairy, and whose descendants lived in territory called Mount Seir, named after him.

Azazel appears as a fictional character in Mikhail Bulgakhov’s Stalin-era novel, The Master and Margarita, where he is portrayed as an uncouth but somewhat benign demon in the service of Satan. Bulgakov latinizes the name Azazel as Azazello.

James George Frazer in his anthropological classic The Golden Bough, reported scapegoat-type rituals in Asia, Central and South America, East Africa and New Zealand.  Frazer considered  the rituals primitive, saying: ‘The notion that we can transfer our guilt or sufferings to some other being who will bear them for us is familiar to the savage mind.Frazer wrote  this in 1890 but the evidence of the last century and a quarter suggests that scapegoating is a ritual not confined to savage minds and that it is neither extinct nor dormant.

April 2016

Re’eh Deuteronomy12:29 – 13:19


When I first looked at the Torah reading, Re’eh, with a view to preparing this introduction, it was the day after a ceasefire commenced in Israel and Gaza. All hell was breaking loose in the UK over Baroness Warsi and the Tricycle Theatre. That now seems a long time ago; ceasefires have come and gone; I’m writing this on Wednesday and I feel with pessimistic certainty that there will be further developments by Shabbat.

There was no getting away from the fact that our text begins, “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land…’ and I wondered if it was going to get better as it went on.

The charge against the other nations is that they sacrifice their children to their false gods, particularly a deity called Moloch.

The text goes on to say that, if a false prophet should arise, and promote the worship of other gods by claiming supernatural knowledge of them, this prophet should be rejected and executed. And if members of your family urge you to follow other gods, resist them. Indeed, our text commands that all such people who advocate pagan worship should be put to death. If a whole town turns to paganism, there should be a herem on that town, people, animals and property. The valuables are to be burned and the town is not to be rebuilt. To carry out a herem is translated variously as to ‘ban’ or ‘proscribe’ or ‘totally destroy’. It is used typically of hostile towns, and, in today’s language, signifies ethnic cleansing or genocide. It is a term used very much in the book of Joshua, in which Joshua leads the Israelites into the promised land and battles to displace the Canaanites and other non-Israelite inhabitants.

So what is the agenda of the book of Deuteronomy, and by implication, the book of Joshua, which, according to the documentary hypotheses, has authorship in common with Deuteronomy?

The book of Deuteronomy plays a very significant part in the account, in the second book of Kings, of the reign of Josiah who had ordered repairs at the Temple in Jerusalem. A sefer Torah was discovered, which, by its content, appears to have been Deuteronomy. Josiah had it read aloud to the people and then set about destroying the idolatrous altars which proliferated in Jerusalem and beyond.

Josiah’s zero tolerance of pagan worship may have been influenced by the militancy of the Deuteronomists, or, vice versa; a case has been made (Frank Moore Cross) to say that the book was written to endorse Josiah’s policy. The suggestion that the passage we are going to read was written in a particular, historical context doesn’t sit well with the Torah min shemayyim view, that Moses received Torah on Sinai.

And this, I think, is the difficulty in the present context of synagogue worship. It’s relatively easy for me to explain the parasha by talking about the agenda of the Deuteronomists, but much more difficult to read it as Holy Scripture and then square it with the commandment to love the stranger. It would call for the kind of exegetical contortionism which is beyond me, so all I can say is listen to it yourselves and then, go figure.

It’s because there are passages like this in Tenach, difficult to explain at the very least, that I don’t like to quote other people’s holy books against them. The crimes people perpetrate in the name of scripture are their own crimes, not, as Richard Dawkins would have it, the crimes of religion per se.

And if God did give us the written Torah, he also gave us the world to inhabit. Nothing about our bible gives the impression that this will ever be easy, but then, according to a famous dictum from Pirke Avot, ‘It’s not for us to complete the work, though neither are we free to desist.’ Meaning what, in this context? Let’s say I mean that Torah is always a work in progress, never completed, not unlike the road works in Myddleton Park Road.

This sidra, named Balak after a king of Moab, concerns the more famous Balaam, a pagan prophet and magician who was recruited by King Balak to curse the Israelites. Why did Balak want the Israelites cursed? Well, like Pharaoh in the time of Moses, he felt threatened by a population increase among the Israelites. Balak planned to contain this by getting a reliable and renowned sorcerer to pronounce a curse and stop the demographic expansion.

Archaeological evidence points to a real sorcerer called Balaam son of Beor. An inscription dated to around the eighth century BCE and unearthed in a part of Jordan, which would correspond with Moab, refers to Balaam bar Beor, a visionary. This fragment of an ancient plaster wall was discovered during an excavation in 1967. The eighth century is later than the events in the Wilderness described in our Torah reading, but it shows that Balaam’s name was known and associated with magic.

Balaam’s story in the bible is particularly memorable because he has a talking ass, who sees an angel as they travel to the court of King Balak. The ass opens her mouth to complain when Balaam strikes her with his staff. Then Balaam sees the angel, who tells him to proceed to Moab, but speak only the words which God will put in his mouth. Seeing an angel is probably less surprising than having a talking ass.

In the chapter which we’re going to read, Balaam has arrived at Bamoth-Baal, the high plateau where the Moabites worship their gods and, from there, he can see the encampment of the Israelites spread out below. Balaam tells the king that he requires seven altars, seven bulls and seven rams, which are provided.

God then appears to Balaam and tells him what to say. Balaam utters the first of his oracles – an oracle is a prophetic saying – in which he praises Israel and says ‘How can I curse whom God has not cursed?’

Balak is dismayed but doesn’t give up and tries moving Balaam to another high place, where seven more altars are constructed and more bulls and rams sacrificed.

Balaam then speaks again, a beautiful poem in which he says, ‘I received a command to bless: God has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.’

Twice more, Balak moves Balaam around, installing the requisite altars and supplying the livestock for sacrifice. Each time, Balaam looks upon the Israelite tents below and speaks the benedictions which God puts into his mouth. He says: ‘Mah tovu ohelecha Yaacov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!’ How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.

Yes, these words come from a celebrated pagan sorcerer Balaam, hired by a Moabite king to curse Israel. After delivering the oracles, Balaam goes home, presumably on the same ass as before, and Balak gives up on cursing the Israelites.

Balaam’s oracles are full of archaic language and words uncommon in biblical use. Some scholars believe that these poems predate the narrative, the Balaam story, but there are other opinions, which see in them allusions to later events. Nobody knows.

Balaam has an afterlife in post-biblical writings. He is much discussed in rabbinic literature, mentioned by Josephus and Philo and alluded to in the New Testament and the Qur’an. Midrash offers a divided view, sometimes referring to Balaam as a great gentile prophet and sometimes calling him ‘the wicked Balaam,’ based on another story in the book of Numbers, where Balaam is a subversive figure, inciting the Israelites to idolatry.

Commentators have made a connection between Balaam’s story and Abraham’s role in the binding of Isaac, in Genesis 22.  Balaam rose early and saddled his ass taking with him two servants. The same is said of Abraham. Balaam sets out in defiance of God’s command while Abraham journey is an act of extraordinary obedience. An angel appears to Balaam and, reversing the previous commandment, tells him to proceed on his journey to Moab. A heavenly voice calls to Abraham and tells him not to carry out the commandment but to lay no hand on Isaac.

The Akedah narrative ends with the words ‘So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba’. Balaam’s narrative ends: Then Balaam rose and went back to his place. And Balak also went his way.’

Balaam uses certain names of God: Shaddai and Elyon, which are not the most usual names. On the whole, it’s the Patriarchs who call God El Shaddai, God Almighty, and after the Patriarchs, in the Pentateuch, it’s only Balaam who uses it. The name Shaddai appears also on the Balaam inscription found in Jordan. God tells Moses, ‘I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai.’ But to Moses He makes himself known by a different name. Regarding the name El Elyon, the Most High God, we hear it in Genesis when we learn that Melchizedek, who blesses Abraham, is the priest of El Elyon.

As for Balak, the Moabite king who plays straight man to Balaam and his talking ass, he is a descendant of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. You may recall how Lot’s narrative was interwoven with that of Abraham. Although that’s another story; it sheds light on the sidra of Balak, Abraham’s distant relation and a descendant of Terach, Abraham’s father.

So maybe the bible’s telling us: you can choose life, but you can’t choose your relations.

GL 5 July 2014

This is one of the most difficult readings in the Torah and it bears a resemblance to an equally difficult passage in Deuteronomy, which likewise lists the punishments due to the people of Israel, if they reject God and His commandments and follow the gods of the neighbouring peoples. They are known by the Hebrew word Tochechot, which means ‘warnings.’ The preceding verses are a series of blessings which God will bestow if the people keep His commandments, so the passage which we are going to read is a counterbalance – the stick and not the carrot.

The blessings, like the punishments, are collective and it is the people, rather than individuals, who are spoken of as being faithful to God or turning away from Him. In fact, all the warnings are in the second person plural, being addressed to all Israel.

The bottom line is God’s warning that He will punish the people with famine to the extent that they will have recourse to cannibalism. The scriptural author must have had experience of famine, indirect if not direct, as he or she was aware that cannibalism is sometimes a consequence of famine.

Can this be our conception of God? Or is it recognizable as human interpretation of catastrophe, where disaster is seen as the retribution of God and the wages of sin?

Bechukkotai threatens other punishments: exile, subjugation by enemies, sickness, weakness and terror. We find in this Torah reading the saying ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall pursue [those left among you] and they shall flee as in flight from the sword and fall, with none pursuing.’

Then the tone changes. So deep is the abyss that is threatened, that up is now the only possible direction. The sins of Israel will be expiated by confession and suffering, and God will remember his covenant with the Patriarchs. The patriarchs are named here as Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, reversing the usual order. The first named, Jacob, stands for Israel more so than Abraham or Isaac, from whom other nations besides Israel are descended.

This passage suits the temperament of at least two kinds of reader. There are those who make a superstitious connection between catastrophe and retribution. Then there are the critics of bible and particularly Tanakh, who denounce the cruelty of what they often call ‘the God of the Old Testament.’

How can we say those interpretations are unreasonable, given the text, in black and white, on our sefer Torah?

I am not able to answer this, but I can see that the first view, of extreme punishment being deserved, tends to be favourable to cruelty; the second view is certainly critical of cruelty but it is perhaps a facile way of reading of scripture.

There is in today’s Torah portion a binary division: reward and punishment, good and evil, strength and weakness, remembering and forgetting.

It reflects a noticeably binary or dual aspect to the stories of Genesis, with its pairs of brothers from Cain and Abel onwards and the adversarial pairing of women: Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, and the less famous Adah and Zillah, before the flood. We see it too in the story of the raven and the dove sent out by Noah. In the sacrificial system of Leviticus, we find pairs of birds and pairs of goats; one is chosen for sacrifice, the other discarded and sent away, not unlike Cain and Ishmael, the discarded partners of Abel and Isaac who, each in his own way, is associated with acceptable sacrifice. Here, in Bechukkotai, we have blessings and curses in close juxtaposition.

My view is that our reading of the Torah should be informed by a perception of grey areas and in-between realities. Enlightened interpretation of scriptural texts has been a characteristic of the modern age, if you regard the modern age as beginning around the time of the seventeenth century, when the Jewish philosopher Spinoza got into trouble for his non-literal interpretation of the bible.

There is great complexity in our politics, our ethics, our wars, our relationship with God and, above all, our perception of cause and effect. The Torah is indeed our inheritance and I think it’s desirable that we read all of it, but we should read it carefully. The tradition is to read these reproofs in an undertone and in orthodox tradition, as a single aliyah. Adam Frankenberg, a rabbinical student at LBC, writes:

All the curses are read within one aliyah and verses which are not curses are read before and after them, which not only means that reading them is completed as quickly as possible but also that the curses themselves are not blessed.

It seems to me that, if we are going to read this passage, that is the way to read it.

This is the opening sidra of the book of Numbers. The reason why Numbers is so called is that, at the beginning of the book, Moses numbers the multitude of Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai, a census, yielding a result of 603,550. This excludes Levites, women
and children, since the point of the census is to ascertain the numbers of men eligible for military conscription.

Whereas the Greek and Latin names of this book, Arithmoi and Numeri, also refer to the numbers counted, the Hebrew name Bemidbar means ‘In the wilderness.’ The words Bemidbar Sinai, in the wilderness of Sinai, occur in the first sentence, and Numbers does indeed relate the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, their battles and rebellions and Moses’ continuing struggle to control and satisfy the mixed multitude of whom he is the reluctant leader.

Tribe by tribe, the Israelite men are counted, Levites excepted, as their role is to maintain the Tabernacle. A chieftain of each tribe is designated to assist Moses and Aaron in the census.

The Israelites camp in tribes, each tribe under their own banner, like the regiment of an army. The disposition of the tribes as they journey forth from their camp has every appearance of being strategic; essentially they are a fighting force.

Censuses in the bible tend to be discouraged. In Mesopotamian and Israelite cultures, they were considered unlucky, and a verse in Exodus prescribes that, when a census is taken of the people of Israel, each person counted has to pay a half shekel tax to avert plague and, as it happens, the number of half shekels contributed by Israelite men over twenty years of age amounted to 603,550 half shekels.

As you’ll see from the haftarah (1 Samuel 2) David’s unauthorised census resulted in a plague. Why was his census unauthorised? Nachmanides, following a midrashic tradition, said it was because David didn’t count to assess his military force but simply to know the size of the nation he ruled.

When Moses counts the number of potential warriors, he counts them l’gulglotam which means by their heads, or by their skulls, a term used elsewhere in connection with polling, or counting persons, for tax or census purposes.

Our English word polling, used in connection with voting in elections, is similarly based on the original meaning of the word poll, as the top of the head. When it comes to the polling booth, where the anonymous individual casts his vote in secret ballot, we have the same
delicacy about naming the voters as persons. The names are on the electoral register – that is how you get to vote – but the vote has a dynamic life of its own, not traceable to the person who voted.

The Israelite warriors, when counted, also become something other than persons. Their individuality is sunk in the collective noun of the fighting force the zva b’Yisroel, the host of Israel, just as the Israeli Defence Force today is called Zva Haganah L’Yisrael. As the
Israelites cross the wilderness, in danger of attack from many hostile tribes, the counting of the heads seems to be a regrettable necessity. By contrast with Moses, David takes a census, in the security of his kingdom and the plague follows. Numbering the population is adangerous activity, not to be embarked on lightly, perhaps because there is a humanitarian risk when one reduces a person to a number.

Moses and Aaron count the Israelites in units according to their tribe and their fathers’ houses. This creates a record of the relative size of the tribes in the second year after the Exodus. The largest tribe is Judah, being more than twice as populous as the smallest tribe,
Manasseh. In fact the three smallest tribes at that time were Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, all Rachel’s tribes rather than Leah’s. This seems to indicate a lower fertility rate in those tribes, unless, even in the wilderness, they had recourse to what Mark Twain called lies, damned lies and statistics.


Genesis 47:28 – 48:22
Jacob died at the age of 147. His last seventeen years were spent in Egypt, numerically equal to the seventeen years Joseph lived in Canaan, before his brothers sold him into slavery.

Midrashic and modern number crunchers have found reasons why Jacob didn’t attain the age of Isaac, 180, or Abraham, 175. This usually involves subtracting 17 from 147 to obtain 130, Jacob’s age when he complained to Pharaoh that his years had been few and difficult. After that, it goes beyond GCSE maths, and I won’t touch it.

Jacob makes Joseph swear that his remains will be taken for burial to the cave of the patriarchs in Machpelah, today’s Hebron. As the end of Jacob’s life is drawing near, Joseph takes his boys Ephraim and Manasseh to visit their grandfather.

Jacob tells Joseph that Ephraim and Manasseh will be like his sons Reuben and Simeon; this is a formula of adoption by which these two younger descendants gain equality with the two eldest. Jacob refers to the grief he suffered when Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. Perhaps his adoption of these two grandsons of Rachel is a way of elevating the influence of her descendants among the more numerous descendants of Leah.

When Ephraim and Manasseh approach Jacob, or Israel as he is called in this verse, he asks ‘Who are these?’ Like his father Isaac in old age, Jacob is barely able to see. Like Isaac, Jacob gives precedence to the younger child, crossing his hands so that his right hand rests on Ephraim and his left on Manasseh, Joseph’s first born. Jacob had taken advantage of Isaac’s blindness to gain the blessing due to Esau and now, for different reasons, he again subverts the custom of primogeniture. Joseph thinks this is a mistake, resulting from blindness or senility but we, who have read Genesis, know this is invariably the way: Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Reuben and now Manasseh are displaced by younger brothers, a theme which will be reflected later on in the kingship of David and Solomon.

Jacob answers that he knows Manasseh is the elder, but Ephraim will be greater. Some people think this story is a retrospective explanation of the fact that Ephraim became the largest tribe of the northern kingdom.

Jacob blesses both the boys in a beautiful poem, asking God who has been Jacob’s shepherd throughout his difficult life to bless the children, multiply their descendants, and identify them as the family of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.

He assures Joseph that God will bring him back to the land of their fathers and expresses his intention to bequeath to Joseph, in preference to his brothers, the land which Jacob took from the Amorites, with his sword and with his bow. What is this inheritance which Jacob seized by force of arms, to give to Joseph? The word shechem means shoulder and there is an ambiguity as to whether shechem here refers figuratively to the portion Joseph is to inherit, or to the place Shechem, which, according to tradition, is the location of Joseph’s tomb.

The verse becomes curiouser and curiouser when we remember that Jacob, who was not a fighter, rebuked his sons Simeon and Levi for attacking the city of Shechem, and there is no mention, in the Torah, of Jacob’s military exploit against the Amorites or any Canaanite tribe.

Nevertheless, there is an account of Jacob’s wars with the Amorites and others, in a text called the Book of Jubilees. This is a reworking of Genesis, comparable to the reworking of biblical texts in midrash. Those who put a date to Jubilees tend to estimate that it originates around the Maccabean period, beginning about 165 BCE. Here are a few verses relevant to our sidra.

Jacob sent his sons to pasture their sheep, and his servants with them to the pastures of Shechem.
And the seven kings of the Amorites assembled themselves together against them, to slay them, hiding themselves under the trees, and to take their cattle as a prey…
And [Jacob] arose from his house, he and his three sons and all the servants of his father, and his own servants, and he went against them with six thousand men, who carried swords.
And he slew them in the pastures of Shechem, and pursued those who fled, and he slew them with the edge of the sword… and he recovered his herds.

This later work develops the idea of a militaristic Jacob, quite unlike the plain man, dwelling in tents, whom we know from Genesis. The last verse of our Torah reading fits in perfectly with the story in Jubilees, so perhaps Jubilees draws on an earlier, now lost tradition about the wars of Jacob.

Even without this warlike aspect, Jacob is an infinitely complex character: passionate, deceitful, astute, loving, long-suffering, pessimistic and devout. It is as if we get to know him more than we know the other patriarchs, and it is his name, Israel, which is our name.

Exodus 35:20 – 36:7
moses doré
Where are we in the Exodus narrative, which features so many ascents up Mount Sinai, so many conversations between God and Moses, and so many instructions for the building and adornment of the Tabernacle, the portable Sanctuary in the wilderness?

Well, Moses has received the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai and the Israelites have committed the sin of the golden calf. Moses has broken the first set of tablets, and gone back up Mount Sinai, returning with two new tablets.

What happens next? Moses assembles the children of Israel and explains to them the commandment to observe Shabbat. He then charges them to make donations for God, that is to say, for the building of the Tabernacle. He asks for all kinds of precious metals and
valuable textiles, but – and this is repeated several times – the donations are brought only by those with a willing heart. The donors were highly motivated and purposeful, and, besides their valuables, they offered their artistic and creative skills. The women spun fine linen and the goldsmiths Bezalel and Oholiob crafted the treasures of the Tabernacle, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge – chochmah, tevunah and da’at.

For those who were in shul on Shabbat Terumah, just three weeks ago, is there not a sense of déjâ vu? For in Exodus 25, God spoke to Moses, telling him to obtain donations from those of a willing heart: gold, silver, onyx, linen, acacia wood – the whole bag of tricks.
Bezalel and Oholiob were charged with the metalwork, just as in our reading today. After the instructions for the Tabernacle, God told Moses to teach the Israelites the commandment of the sabbath: ‘V’shamru v’nei Israel et ha-shabbat, la’asot et ha-shabbat ledorotam brit olam’.1

Precisely while Moses was receiving these commandments, the children of Israel were making and worshipping the golden calf.

The order of events can be confusing for the reader, even for those who hear these sidrot read every year. In the first instance, Moses goes up Mount Sinai where God commands him concerning the Tabernacle and shabbat, in that order. Moses comes down, sees the calf and breaks the tablets. After punishing the wrongdoers, he obeys God’s command to hew two new tablets of stone, and takes them up the mountain. This time God does not write himself but dictates Torah to Moses. Moses returns from Sinai, numinously radiant and assembles the people. He speaks to them about shabbat and the Tabernacle, in that order.

The kind of literary structure which comes up quite often in the Torah is called chiastic, cross-shaped like the Greek letter chi. The pattern is ABCBA: Tabernacle, Shabbat, Calf, Shabbat, Tabernacle. This literary device is found also in non-Hebrew ancient and epic
literature, for example in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.

The passage we are reading today is sometimes seen as describing the repentance of the Israelites, after the sin of the calf, as they bring their treasures so willingly and in such quantities that the wise men tell Moses ‘The people are bringing too much for the work of
the task that the Lord charged to do.’2

But the people are fickle, unreliable. We saw that they donated their jewellery for the molten calf as eagerly as they donate it for the building of the Tabernacle. They are the same multitude of people, changing their opinions and affections, sometimes for Moses and at other times against him; they worship a molten idol and afterwards they worship God.

Moses appears capable of astute political judgment, as he channels the people’s dangerous, volatile energy into building the Tabernacle, governing his unruly nation by involving them in the creation of a Sanctuary where God can dwell among them.

Either Moses knows, or the author of Exodus knows, or God knows that people need sacred objects, sacred space and even sacred land to lead fulfilled religious lives.

A problem may arise if sacredness is seen as residing in the object, rather than in the process where the sacred object plays a symbolic part. Although the children of Israel were more than willing to contribute their gold for the molten calf, their fatal error was in worshipping as a god what was merely an installation. One of the things we hope to learn from these chapters of Exodus is how to call a calf a calf.
26 February 2011

  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Keith.
  • keithmarr: Dearest Gillian < div dir="ltr">Not only do you manage to read all this filth without throwing up but you manage to make me laugh
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Unless they are members of the group in general agreement with the Labour manifesto of 2019 but against the excesses which are often found in these gr