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.



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

Babylon and the Writing on the Wall

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 5.1

The song, “Mene, Mene, Tekel” (Harold Rome, 1939) takes its name and chorus from the original, now proverbial, “writing on the wall” (Daniel 5:25):

מְנֵא מְנֵא, תְּקֵל וּפַרְסִין

Rome’s satirical translation of the “writing on the wall” seems as appropriate to 2017 as to 1939, and it’s quite faithful to the biblical text:

King, stop your frolicking, stop your flaunting
you’ve been weighed and you’re found wanting
all your days are numbered days
the Lord don’t like dictators or dictators ways
— H. Rome “Mene, Mene, Tekel”
(Joe Glazer’s version; full lyrics, original and adapted)

This song also leads to further questions about how we understand and interact with sacred text, particularly at times of crisis. And it will give us a slightly different perspective for #ExploringBabylon.

Music of Protest and Power

When new, the song was banned from the radio and protested by both the Daily Worker and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, among others. It was a later addition to the already controversial musical revue, Pins and Needles, November 1937 to June 1940. The satirical revue ran for 1108 shows, a record for Broadway shows at the time, and was performed throughout most of its run by amateurs from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

Labor and other social justice issues were frequent topics for Rome (1908 – 1993). For more, see 1993 NY Times obituary and the 2014 biography (Lyrical Satirical Harold Rome: A biography of the composer-lyricist. Tighe E Zimmers).

Joe Glazer (1918-2006), known as “Labor’s Troubadour,” often performed “Mene, Mene, Tekel” along with other organizing and protest songs (2006 NY Times obituary). Glazer settled in Silver Spring, MD and lent his voice — including renditions of this song — to early Jews United for Justice Labor Seders.

In a 1981 live performance, Glazer introduced the song’s historical and biblical background:

I want to close with one of the great song’s by Harold Rome. He wrote it at the height of Hilter’s move through Europe, Africa…he was gonna invade England. He was taking over everything, it looked pretty, pretty dark.

Old Harold Rome he took out the Bible, and he checked the Book of Daniel. He saw that old Belshazzar — he was riding high one day, and he got his comeuppance, because he saw the handwriting on the wall. It said: “MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN,” in old Aramaic. “You have been weighed in the balances and you have been found wanting.”

He just took that story and he wrote it up. And that’s what helped to bring old Hitler down, I’ll tell you that.
— from “The Jewish Immigrant Experience in America”
Collector Records, Smithsonian Folkways

Smithsonian Folkways shares Glazer’s introduction and song here–

Rome’s 1962 Anniversary recording, lyrics (Rome and Glazer versions), and more posted here.

Guests were Shagging

Most of Glazer’s alterations to Rome’s lyrics are stylistic, including rhythm and story-telling preferences, and some changes to dialect. One of the biggest changes is the use of “the joint was jumping” in place of Rome’s “guests were shagging.” And this raises some interesting questions about study and use of the bible.

In the US in the 1930s, “shagging” was a relatively new term for a form of jazz dance. Swing dancers, especially in the South, still use the term, although the style has changed over the decades.

Someone more familiar with the history of British slang would know if “shag” was used in the 1930s for sexual intercourse — and if such usage was commonly known in the US; this would create a double-entendre. But it seems likely that the primary meaning in “Mene, Mene, Tekel” was that the banquet included spirited dancing, maybe something like this (from “A Day at the Races”) —

— or maybe this instruction video from Arthur Murray.

By the latter part of the 20th Century, the dance meaning was less generally current, and the Britishism had gained popularity in the US. So saying the “guests were shagging” at that point, when the song was in Glazer’s repertoire, could just sound crude.

This tiny example of how a change in language usage — even among primary speakers of the language alive to recall some of the shifting — is offered as a reminder of just how complex a project it is to interpret an ancient text that has traveled continents and cultures.

It can also point to a bit of what (mostly Christian) bible scholars call “reception history,” that is, how sacred text is understood and used in different generations. More on the general concept in the future.

Guests were Shagging?

Whatever Rome originally intended by “shagging” — an eager student of Broadway and dance could no doubt uncover this, if it’s not already known — sexuality and partner dancing are always closely entwined. Moreover, we are told in the Book of Daniel that Belshazzar is feasting with his “consorts and concubines” — “court and concubines” in the song lyrics (both versions). In addition, sexual license is an aspect of the ill-repute Babylon developed through the centuries (partly via Christian Scripture). More on this later, too.

In this respect, it’s unclear how much “sex” is included in any description of dancing at Belshazzar’s party. But the descriptions of partying in “Mene, Mene, Tekel” don’t sound like a condemnation of sexy jazz dancing, or of anyone but the king.

A musically-oriented interpreter with an ear to Europe in 1939 knows that the Reich was banning jazz as “degenerate music,” for its Jewish and Black associations. (See US Holocuast Memorial Museum just to start.) In that context, what does it mean that “guests were shagging, horns were blowin'” during Belshazzar’s banquet?

We have a hint in the song’s conclusion:

Now, the king of Babylon was slain
But the children of the Lord remain
All his idols turned to rust
crumbled are his kingdom and his power to dust

It’s not the dancers and horn players who turn to dust but the king and his power. More on all this as we continue #ExploringBabylon.


Note 1: Daniel and the Writing
The Book of Daniel comes to us partially Hebrew and partially, including Chapter Five, in Aramaic. These four words on the wall, and Daniel’s interpretation of those mysterious words, is the heart of this chapter’s story. So, the words are generally left untranslated and rendered (IN ALL CAPS, e.g) so as to stand out.

It’s pronounced something like “menny, menny, teckle, oo-farseen.”

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN.
This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE, God hath numbered thy kingdom, and brought it to an end.
TEKEL, Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
PERES, thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.’
Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with purple, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made proclamation concerning him, that he should rule as one of three in the kingdom.
In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain.
— Daniel 5:25-30 (Old JPS) Mechon-Mamre