Poverty and the White Horse’s Red Strap

Exploring Babylon Chapter 18-1/2

The previous chapter, “Exile, Passover, and Melting Pot,” looked at nine bible verses using the word “kur,” usually translated as “crucible” or “furnace.” This addendum shares the odd midrash on one such verse, mentioned in the earlier post, which suggests some ideas about Passover, exile, and learning.

Furnace Midrash

Each appearance of “kur” involves “great trouble and misery” (1906 Jewish Encyclopedia) and all relate suffering to sin. The phrase, kur ha-barzel — “iron blast furnace” or “iron crucible” — appears three times as a reference to Egypt, from which the people were rescued to become “God’s own.”

Isaiah employs a similar metaphor, the phrase “kur oni,” in reference to the Babylonian exile:

הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ,
בְּכוּר עֹנִי
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee
in the furnace of affliction [or poverty].
— Isaiah 48:10
(more of this passage below)

A midrash, retold in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, discusses the meaning of Isaiah’s “furnace”verse:

[The prophet] Elijah said to Ben He He (some say to R. Eleazar): The verse “Behold, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of poverty” (Isa. 48:10) implies that, among all the good states of being that the Holy One scrutinized to give to Israel, He found none better than poverty.
Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik & Ravnitsky, 341:57

The Talmud passage, on which this is based, adds a “folk saying” meant to further elucidate the point:

א”ל אליהו לבר הי הי וא”ל לר’ אלעזר מאי דכתיב (ישעיהו מח, י) הנה צרפתיך ולא בכסף בחרתיך בכור עוני מלמד שחזר הקב”ה על כל מדות טובות ליתן לישראל ולא מצא אלא עניות אמר שמואל ואיתימא רב יוסף היינו דאמרי אינשי יאה עניותא ליהודאי כי ברזא סומקא לסוסיא חיורא:
Elijah the Prophet said to bar Hei Hei, and some say that he said this to Rabbi Elazar: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction [oni]” (Isaiah 48:10)?

This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought after all good character traits to impart them to the Jewish people, and He found only poverty [aniyut] capable of preventing them from sin.

Shmuel said, and some say it was Rav Yosef: This explains the folk saying that people say: Poverty is good for the Jewish people like a red bridle [barza] for a white horse. Just as a red bridle accentuates the white color of the horse, so the challenge of poverty draws out the purity of the Jewish people.
— B. Chagigah 9b
Wm Davidson Talmud, via Sefaria.org
line breaks added for ease of reading


Further Commentary

Hershey H. Friedman discusses the red strap midrash within the context of economics and Jewish history:

The enigmatic statement quoted in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 9b), “Poverty is so fitting for the Jew, like a red strap (or saddle) on a white horse,” is interpreted by Rabbi Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, in the following manner. A horse is saddled up when it goes out; in the stable everything is removed. So too, the Jewish people should wear their poverty when they go out in order not to arouse the envy of the gentiles. Within the privacy of one’s house, however, wealth is good (Kreuser, p. 171*).
— “The Simple Life: The Case Against Ostentation in Jewish Law”
*Kreuser, Yissachar Dov. Genuzas Ha’GRA. Jerusalem: self-published (in Hebrew), 2000.

Friedman concludes on the ethics of ostentation and wealth:

The sages recognized that very little good can result from a splashy, gaudy lifestyle. On the contrary, it produces envy, suffering, arrogance, dishonesty, and shaming of the impecunious. The Torah teaches us that ostentation is not the true purpose of wealth, helping others is.

CooCoo for Coco argues differently from a fashion perspective and use of red in ancient Jewish ritual:

Similarly, poverty is neither romantic nor exotic nor aesthetic….Nonetheless, often the most challenging situation, that which pumps blood and flushes faces, is that which accentuates inherent virtues, allowing the best in us to take a well awaited strut down the runway….Evidently, poverty and predicaments in general, draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse….

Thus, the pages of Hagiga advise not an abstention from all fiery passions but, in fact incorporation of these powers in appropriate amounts in order to enhance one’s unadulterated virtues; the secret to salvation lies in complementary accessories accentuating natural qualities. White purity is all the more noticeable when countered by a tempered amount of florid flush…
–“Horsing Around the Right Way: Fashion Lessons from the Talmud”


Isaiah’s phrase “kur oni,” a furnace of affliction or poverty, resonates in the Passover seder, when we eat “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. Isaiah’s prophecy suggests that God is teaching the People through exile, a common understanding of the Exodus as well (the “iron furnace”). Moreover, the passage from Isaiah seems to say that the People could not, or at least did not, learn from prior experiences.

Some questions this raises:

  • Are there lessons from Exodus and Exile that are uniquely learned from those experiences?
  • What was NOT learned in the Exodus that was to be learned in Exile?
  • What about poverty: does it teach specific lessons? or is that romanticizing a difficult state of being?
  • Do we need some kind of “affliction” to learn?
  • How do we use the seder to (re)create experiences that bring important learning?


Isaiah 48:6-11
“You have heard all this; look, must you not acknowledge it? As of now, I announce to you new things, Well-guarded secrets you did not know.
Only now are they created, and not of old; Before today you had not heard them; You cannot say, “I knew them already.”
You had never heard, you had never known, Your ears were not opened of old. Though I know that you are treacherous, That you were called a rebel from birth,
For the sake of My name I control My wrath; To My own glory, I am patient with you, And I will not destroy you.
See, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of affliction.
For My sake, My own sake, do I act— Lest [My name] be dishonored! I will not give My glory to another.”
More at Sefaria or Mechon-Mamre


Exile, Passover, and Melting Pot


Exploring Babylon Chapter 18

“The Americas were far. The Americas were different. It was rabbinic exile.” This, writes Rabbi Oran Zweiter, is how European immigrant rabbis to the New World felt, beginning with Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, who left Holland for Brazil in 1642. Aboab (1607-1693), the first ordained rabbi known to make such a move, served the Jewish community in Recife until after Portugal re-captured the Dutch colony in 1654.

There is much of interest for #ExploringBabylon in Zweiter’s article, published in honor of Aboab’s yahrzeit, Adar 27, (March 14 in 2018). In preparation for Passover, however, let’s direct our attention to one phrase that links the New World to Mitzraim.

Please note: this piece, first posted late on March 18, was updated slightly at 9:00 a.m. March 19.

Brazil, kur ha-barzel

Zweiter illustrates Aboab’s “personal feelings of exile” using examples from his Brazil-based writings:

Aboab’s [vidui/confessional] poem is an account of the Portuguese siege. It is also a deeply personal reflection on what it meant for him to be sent as a rabbi to the far end of the world. He used biblical words with similar pronunciation and spelling to allude to Brazil, such as kur ha-barzel, the “melting pot,” which in the Torah refers to Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:20).

Similarly, Aboab referenced the new geography in which the Jews found themselves….

Brazil “represented a state of exile,” the Jewish community were “Dwellers in the shadows of the universe,” and Aboab declared: “For my sin, I have been tossed to a faraway land.”

Aboab’s sense of exile for sin makes the play on words with “Brazil” and “kur ha-barzel” a poignant one. Zweiter’s translation of the latter as “melting pot” adds another interesting layer of meaning.


R. Isaac Aboab. Image in public domain, from Brown University

Uses of “kur

My concordance lists three uses of “kur ha-barzel” in the Tanakh:

וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם
מִכּ֥וּר הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל
מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt,
that iron blast furnace,
to be His very own people, as is now the case.
— Deuteronomy 4:20

כִּי-עַמְּךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ, הֵם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מִמִּצְרַיִם,
מִתּוֹךְ כּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל.
For they are Your very own people that You freed from Egypt,
from the midst of the iron furnace.
— 1 Kings 8:51

“Hear the terms of this covenant, and recite them to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem! And say to them, Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who will not obey the terms of this covenant,
אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶת־אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הוֹצִיאִי־אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם
מִכּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל
לֵאמֹר שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אוֹתָם כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אֲצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לִי לְעָם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם
which I enjoined upon your fathers when I freed them from the land of Egypt,
the iron crucible,
saying, ‘Obey Me and observe them, just as I command you, that you may be My people and I may be your God’— [11:4]
in order to fulfill the oath which I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as is now the case.” And I responded, “Amen, LORD.”
— Jeremiah 11:2-5

There are six more uses of the word “kur“: Two in Proverbs (17:3, 27:21), three in Ezekiel (22:18, 20, 22), and one in Isaiah (48:10). The word is “always metaphorically employed to describe great trouble and misery,” according to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. Moreover, all uses involve trial in relation to sin, and four of the six specifically reference Jews suffering God’s wrath.

Furnace, Forge, and Crucible

When Zweiter describes Aboab’s Brazil/barzel pun, he translateskur ha-barzel” as “melting pot.” Perhaps Aboab’s poem includes other clues that point to “melting pot.” The Deuteronomy verse that Zweiter cites, the first use of the expression “kur ha-barzel” for the experience of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, is not usually translated that way, however.

Instead, we find:

  • “iron blast furnace” (JPS, quoted above),
  • “iron crucible” (Artscroll),
  • “Iron Furnace” (Fox), and
  • “iron forge” (Alter).

Alter’s translation includes this note:

The argument of the sermon now moves another step back in time, from Sinai to the Exodus. The origins of Israel as a people subject to another people in whose land it dwelled, rescued from the crucible of slavery by God, are adduced as further evidence of God’s unique election of Israel.

Melting Pot

The first use of the expression “melting pot” in American English is dated to 1887 by Merriam-Webster. The term came to describe the peculiar struggles in the U.S. around immigration and assimilation. This usage was popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot, which was first performed — and reportedly applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt — in 1908.

It seems unlikely that Aboab, in Brazil in the mid-17th Century, could have envisioned the scenes of Ellis Island, in the early 20th, that inspired this speech:

America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!…A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.
— David Quixano to Verendal, The Melting Pot
more below

But Zweiter’s use of the expression is interesting and provocative in the context of Passover:

  • It highlights the tension between “God’s unique election of Israel” in the Exodus story and the notion of “God making the American”;
  • It raises more general questions about divine providence and civic duty, exile and learning; and
  • It reminds us that the concept of “melting pot” is no more gentle than “iron blast furnace” or some of the other translations for “kur ha-barzel.”

Zweiter concludes his piece:

The writings of Rabbi Isaac Aboab, the first rabbi in the Americas, reveal challenges that would continuously confront rabbis, immigrant and native alike, in the Americas. His writing reflects the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the New World from its earliest stages. His story demonstrates that the challenges that have faced spiritual leadership in the Americas are not new. They began with the very first rabbi to settle, however shortly, in the New World.

In that sense, Aboab’s experience is precursor to that of Zangwill’s Quizano family, with the mezuzah, “Stars-and-Stripes,” mizrach, and old-world violin competing for space at the front door. And with these words, Zweiter’s piece prods us to think, as Passover approaches, about the peculiarly American aspects of the challenge in the Deuteronomy verse: “but you, the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace [or melting pot], to be God’s very own people, as is now the case.”

I have no direct access to Aboab’s writings, which I believe are extant in Portuguese and Hebrew and not widely available. Zweiter cites Hakhmei Recife Ve-Amsterdam, with a link to the National Library of Israel; here is a more direct link, for what it’s worth, to the catalog listing for rare books.

Isaiah 48:10 uses the phrase “kur oni” —

הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ,
בְּכוּר עֹנִי
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee
in the furnace of affliction [sometimes: poverty].

— which calls to mind Passover’s “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. This verse is also related to an odd, and cryptic, midrash (B. Chag 9b) on poverty. More on this soon, I hope.

Closing lines of The Melting Pot:

DAVID: There she lies, the great Melting Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [He points east]—the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—

VERA: Jew and Gentile—

DAVID: Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!

NOTE: This play, and historical notes, are available via Project Guttenberg (public domain). If you have not read it, or read it recently, check it out!


Ezekiel, Exodus, and Babylon

Exploring Babylon Chapter 17

Recent scholarship concerning the prophet Ezekiel touches on some fascinating questions about the extent to which Judeans in Babylonian exile were acculturated and how cultural contact between Babylon and Israel might have affected Jewish sacred text. Much of the discussion revolves around links between the Book of Exodus and Ezekiel’s visions. And this week — which includes both the final readings in the Book of Exodus and a reading from Ezekiel — seems a good one to begin exploring some of the scholarship.

Background on the prophet Ezekiel comes exclusively from biblical evidence (i.e., no extra-biblical references have been found). He lived first in Judea, part of a priestly family, and was then forcibly relocated as in the first Exile to Babylon in 597 BCE. Because he served in the Temple, it is assumed that he was at least 20 years old while still living in Jerusalem. The visions he records encompass both Jerusalem and Babylon.

A brief scan of scholarship — at this point, using only free sources accessible on-line; more to come, and suggestions for resources most welcome! — includes several views about the life in Babylon available to someone of Ezekiel’s background.

Ezekiel and Babylonian Literature

“Ezekiel in and on Babylon,” by D. S. Vanderhooft discusses acculturation of Judean exiles, pointing out the difference between acculturation and assimilation and raising a number of possibilities for what Ezekiel might have encountered. (Here’s Vanderhooft’s paper, via Academia.edu, from TRANSEUPHRATÈNE 2014,)

Vanderhooft and many others cite the work of Laurie E. Pearce, Assyriologist in the Dept. of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at University of California-Berkeley. She looks at “Identifying Judeans and Judean Identity in the Babylonian Evidence” in the collection Exile and Return: The Babylonian Context (Jonathan Stökl & Caroline Waerzeggers, eds. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2015 — available in part through Google Books.) More specifically, she posits several suggestions for if/how Ezekiel would have learned cuneiform and gained familiarity with Babylonian literature (Ezekiel: A Jewish Priest and a Babylonian Intellectual).

In “Ancient Jewish Cultural Encounters and a Case Study on Ezekiel,” Mladen Popović discusses the relative strength of proposed literary parallels between Ezekiel and Babylonian literature as well as other evidence for knowledge sharing across cultural boundaries during Ezekiel’s time. His article introduces the Jewish Cultural Encounters in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern World which he edited with Myles Schoonover and Marijn Vandenberghe (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2017 — also available in part through Google Books).

Ezekiel’s Visions and Babylon

In “Ezekiel’s Temple in Babylonian Context,” Tova Ganzel and Shalom E. Holtz discuss the possible influence of Neo-Babylonian temples on Ezekiel’s visions. Their focus is on how both Babylonian temples and Ezekiel’s visionary architecture are designed similarly to separate sacred from profane. They conclude:

We cannot say with any certainty that Ezekiel borrowed these features from his environment. We may say, however, that Ezekiel and his audience might have understood the plan for the rebuilt temple by looking to their surroundings. They had, in short, a working model not too far from their homes in exile.
Ganzel/Holtz paper, from Vetus Testamentum 64 [2014], via Academia.edu

Abraham Winitzer raises a more radical suggestion in his article, “Assyriology and Jewish Studies in Tel Aviv: Ezekiel among the Babylonian literati.” He notes that other scholars have found similarities between images in Mesopotamian mythology, visions of Ezekiel (1:26–27), and descriptions in Exodus (24:9–10). He continues, however, suggesting that parts of Exodus (chaps. 25–31, 35–40) not only “share important features with Ezekiel but in fact may be derivative of it.” Winitzer then adds:

The ramifications of this proposal – if it finds acceptance – are considerable, and would further the basic claim made here concerning the place of Babylon in the formation of early Jewish tradition. For not only would it shed new light on the place of Ezekiel and, more broadly, of the biblical prophets in a way presciently anticipated by early modern biblical scholarship, it would also highlight exposure to Babylonian culture as a productive force behind this evolution.
— Winitzer, IN Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations Between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity.
Uri Gabbay and Shai Secunda, eds. (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)

Ezekiel's Vision

from freebibleimages.org

Shabbat Parah

This week’s Torah portion concludes the Book of Exodus and the construction of the Tabernacle (Ex 40, in the double-portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Ex 35:1-40:38). Special readings for Shabbat Parah, one of the special Shabbatot leading up to Passover, are Numbers 19:1-22 and Ezekiel 36:16-38.

The extra Torah reading speaks of the ritual of the red heifer, which purifies after contact with a corpse. As My Jewish Learning explains, this theme is tied to Passover because “only people who were pure could eat from the Passover sacrifice, in ancient times a public announcement reminded anyone who had become impure to purify themselves before making the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

The haftarah includes a different view of purity, linked with Judea returning from Babylonian exile:

וְזָרַקְתִּ֧י עֲלֵיכֶ֛ם מַ֥יִם טְהוֹרִ֖ים וּטְהַרְתֶּ֑ם מִכֹּ֧ל טֻמְאוֹתֵיכֶ֛ם וּמִכָּל־גִּלּ֥וּלֵיכֶ֖ם אֲטַהֵ֥ר אֶתְכֶֽם׃
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes.

וְנָתַתִּ֤י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֤ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר׃
And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh;

וְאֶת־רוּחִ֖י אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וְעָשִׂ֗יתִי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־בְּחֻקַּי֙ תֵּלֵ֔כוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶֽם׃
and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.
— Ez 36:25-27


Computing Failures and Babylon

Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.2

Attempts to calculate the end of exile — by both Belshazzar in Babylon and Ahashverus in Persia — have something powerful in common with the People’s behavior in at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Torah portion Ki Tisa (Ex 30:11 – 34:35).

Moses Bosheish!

I love spots in the Torah where translators disagree. When a Torah verse is translated by different sources in very different ways, it’s a reminder that translation is never straightforward and that no one translation can tell the whole story, even if scholars agree on what it is. Differing translations are also frequently a clue that more is going on under the surface of any one translation. We have a powerful example in Ki Tisa:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.
– Ex 32:1, JPS Tanakh, 1985

Based on language alone, there are at least three obvious ambiguities in this verse:

  • Did the People demand gods, plural, or one god? “Elohim” works both ways in Hebrew, referring to God or to human judges, and scholars argue for both possibilities in this context. Because there was ultimately only one Golden Calf created in the story, translators usually employ “god,” singular;
  • What kind of leadership are the People expecting from Aaron? When Moses went up the mountain – which is back in chapter 24 – he told the people that Aaron and Hur would be in charge in his absence. But we have no mention of earlier interactions with the interim leaders – and then there’s the odd failure to mention Hur again, which lead some midrashim to suggest that things were already so dire that Hur had already been killed by the agitated crowd. Still, the language could mean the people are standing opposite Aaron to speak to him or that they are gathering more aggressively.
  • Finally, what, exactly has Moses done to upset the People so severely? A common translation is that he “delayed” or “was so long” in coming down. Robert Alter says he “lagged.” And Everett Fox chooses “shamefully-late.” These three versions reflect a spectrum of angst: something taking “so long” could possibly be neutral or positive, even if excess is implied; “lagged” leaves less room for a non-negative interpretation; and “shamefully-late” might leave room for a positive explanation – helping someone with an emergency concern, for example, rather than forgetting or procrastinating – but it’s still obvious that whoever is waiting is distressed by the delay.

Regardless of translation, commentators spend a lot of energy trying to devise some kind of explanation for the People’s behavior that prompted what comes next: the quick turn to idol worship, Moses destroying the tablets, God threatening to destroy the whole People, and three thousand killed in camp.


from freebibleimages.org


Shame and Delay

It doesn’t help translation or interpretation that the word central to this narrative, “bosheish,” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah and shows up only once in the Tanakh.

Sisera’s mother, who doesn’t yet know that her son the general, was killed, wonders why his chariot bosheish (Judges 5:28). It’s a heart-breaking scene that might shed some light on the kind of anxiety the People were experiencing.

The related word “bosh,” translated as “shame,” is more common, appearing 106 times in the Tanakh, according to my concordance. Aviva Zornberg, in her discussion of this portion in the Particulars of Rapture, mentions one instance in particular, another verse in Judges, from the odd story of King Eglon, whose servants wait for him ad-bosh, “until they’re ashamed,” after he has been stabbed and retreats to his room, possibly to relieve himself, only the servants soon learn that he is dead(Judges 3:25). Another indication that bosh and bosheish are associated with very troubling – even life and death – situations.

I don’t fully grasp the biblical connection between shame and being late. But I think we’ve all experienced the peculiar state of waiting for someone who was expected at a certain time, terrified that something awful happened and equally, simultaneously ashamed at likely making a mountain out of a molehill.

With this in mind, some Golden Calf midrashim put part of the blame on Moses for being unclear about his return, when he went up the mountain, thereby causing unnecessary angst. The Talmud puns on bosheish and the word for “six,” saying that Moses had announced he would return by the sixth hour – noon, by Talmudic accounting – after 40 days. But the People miscalculated his expected return, because Moses failed to specify that the day he went up did not count as a full night and day.

Uncertainty and ha-Satan

And then, the midrash continues, the satan took advantage of the ambiguity and the People’s concern to convince them that Moses was dead. Thus, they’re so quick to look for another way forward.

There are similar stories, in midrash, in which the satan shows up. At the Akedah, for example: Sarah knows nothing about the journey Abraham and Isaac are taking, so the satan can convince her that Isaac is dead. I have not made an extensive study, but I notice that one key element in Jewish stories where Satan shows up is a disturbing level of uncertainty that can be exploited. The satan even convinces God to test Job based on uncertainty (about Job’s faithfulness). So, I’d to concentrate on the uncertainty in the Golden Calf story.

One way I look at this Torah moment is akin to being on a roadtrip with strangers to parts unknown, when the driver disappears behind a creepy truck-stop: Is he seeking directions or obtaining supplies? In need of privacy – to relieve himself, or meditate, or whatever? Or, given that we’re all relative strangers, can we rule out that he might be doing something nefarious that we’d rather not witness or involved in something that could get us all into terrible trouble?

Unless the instruction before he disappeared were dramatic and very specific – like “give me ten minutes and then come after me” or “wait twenty minutes and then take off, no matter what” – how do we decide what to do and when, as his return is delayed? If the driver left someone else in charge, do we automatically trust them? If relationships among other travelers are stronger than links to a leader, will factions develop? How long do we wait before declaring “enough is enough” and commandeering the car or going our own ways?

I suspect that most of us, at some point, have been in a situation of uncertainty and some gravity which forced us to decide, for safety and sanity, if and when to bail.

Maybe there was also a God factor, that is, a situation in which someone claims to speak for God and all involved have to decide whom to trust, how to discern divine will – assuming such is even possible – and how to move forward, individually and collectively.

Most of this portion does not offer the best model for handling such situations. It does remind us, however, of how frightening uncertainty can be – on our own and within a community – and the Golden Calf story warns us of how dangerous it is to let that fright convince us to jump to conclusions and then launch into action, thinking that we know the answers.

The Perils of Calculus

While the ancient Rabbis had compassion for the People’s precarious state of mind, they had no sympathy for, in essence, trying to out-calculate God.

The futility of this is also decried in Rabbinic writings about predicting the expected end of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. One such attempt is by Belshazzar in Babylon. He calculated that the time of exile, prophesied by Jeremiah, was complete but the Jews were not yet rescued, so God had abandoned them (Daniel 5). This results in the “writing on the wall,” followed by Belshazzar’s death and the conquest of Babylon by Persia.

In midrash to the Book of Esther, Ahashverus in Persia tries to avoid Belshazzar’s error with his own calculations, planning to similarly celebrate the Jew’ abandonment by God, because the Temple is not yet reconstructed. But his calculations also fail, and, after a number of reversals, it turns out that “the Jews had rule over them that hated them” (Esther 9:1). (See B. Megillah 11b).

The Golden Calf story and these midrashim about Babylon and Persia all seem to point to Jewish tradition warning against trying to guess the future or what is going on with other people.

A Suggestion

So, what are we supposed to do when faced with uncertainty?

We have a strong suggestion in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident: God teaches Moses how to pray when in trouble, telling him to recite the 13 divine attributes:

…יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
“merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”
– Ex 34:6

When faced with uncertainty and fear, the way forward, the portion tell us finally, is not to try to out-calculate or second-guess God or other people but to call on God’s attributes and work to help them become manifest in our world.

These remarks were prepared as a dvar torah for Hill Havurah
Calf from FreeBibleImages.org