God’s Favor, God’s Prayer

Berakhot 7a discusses the topic of God’s prayer:

R. Johanan says in the name of R. Jose: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, says prayers? Because it says: Even them will I bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer (Isaiah 56:7; more below). It is not said, ‘their prayer’, but ‘My prayer’ [תְּפִלָּתִי]; hence [you learn] that the Holy One, blessed be He, says prayers.

What does He pray? — R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.’…

Isaiah 56:7
וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל-הַר קָדְשִׁי, וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי–עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי: כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים
Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
–“Old” JPS translation (borrowed from Mechon-Mamre)

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Investigation and Surmise

In next week’s Torah portion, Jacob is brought the many-colored coat he’d given his favorite son, Joseph. The coat has been dipped in goat’s blood to trick Jacob into believing Joseph was torn by a wild animal, rather than that his own brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:23-36).

“We found this; identify, if you please: Is it your son’s tunic or not?” (verse 32; using Stone/Artscroll translation here and below)

Jacob responds: “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph has surely been torn to bits! [tarof toraf yosef]” (verse 33)

Jacob initiates no investigation. Obviously there was no forensic unit in the area to test the blood or ferret out other clues. Still, Jacob doesn’t even ask a question, as far as we know. The sons never even have to lie outright. Jacob simply jumps to a conclusion and then begins to mourn.

Later in the same portion, Joseph’s older brother Judah fails to look carefully at matters pertaining to his daughter-in-law Tamar, and she is nearly put to death by the court before he realizes his mistake(s) (Genesis 38).

Judah, too is asked: “identify, if you please [evidence in the case].” (Gen. 38:25)
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A Sexagesimal Approach

Umberto Cassuto takes a far different approach, from that of the kabbalists cited in recent posts, to numbers in the bible. He focuses instead on “the sexagesimal system, which was in general use in the ancient East” (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, part two: from Noah to Abraham, p.32).

Cassuto’s commentary on the measurements of Noah’s ark are brief, and not terribly illuminating, simply noting that the height of thirty cubits is “half of sixty, the fundamental number of the sexagesimal system” (p.63). His numerical commentary on other verses is so extensive, however, as to prompt apology: “The reader will, I trust, forgive me for devoting to this subject about two pages of dry, analytical calculations” (p.255).

Here is one part of the subsequent remarks on the generations from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham’s father, Terah:

From Arpachshad to Nahor, the age of the patriarchs at the time of the birth of the first son is fixed, as we have stated, round about thirty, that is, half a unit of sixty years, or six units of sixty months. In three cases it is exactly thirty, and in four instances it is slightly more or less, namely, +5, +4, +2, -1, making an algebraic total of +10 years, that is, two units of sixty months. In the generation of Terah, the age rises again and reaches seventy years — fourteen units of sixty months.
— Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, part two: from Noah to Abraham, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992. p.256

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Building Teva: Ark and Word

Here are the missing sources for yesterday’s post:

Gematria linking the measurement’s of Noah’s ark — including its 30-cubit height — to the four-letter name of God, YHVH, is credited to the 16th Century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, AKA “the Ari.” I do not have an exact citation, and perhaps there is an older source as well.

Yalkut Reuveni, a 17th Century anthology of writings from kabbalist Reuben Kahana of Prague, is credited with linking Proverbs 18:10 with Noah entering the ark.

Kabbalists, including the 18th Century Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, also offer commentary linking Noah’s ark [teva] and the concept of ‘word’ (‘teva‘ can also mean ‘word’). This commentary thread focuses on the power and responsibility of language and thought.
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Refuge in God

Noah was called a righteous man (Gen 6:9) and the dimensions of the ark suggest that he found refuge or dwelled in God’s name…

In Genesis 6:15, God tells Noah to construct an ark that is 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Doing the math, some teachers note that 50 = 10 (yod) X 5 (heh) = YH and 30 = 6 (vav) X 5 (heh) = VH. The width and height can then be said to represent the two parts of God’s four-letter name — YHVH.

Proverbs 18:10 says “the righteous goes to find refuge in YHVH”:

מִגְדַּל-עֹז, שֵׁם יְהוָה; בּוֹ-יָרוּץ צַדִּיק וְנִשְׂגָּב.
The name of YHVH a strong tower:
the righteous runneth into it, and is set up on high.
— Old JPS, via mechon-mamre

This idea appears in a number of contemporary sermons, and I am looking for its source(s).
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House of God

The story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10ff) uses three place names for the same spot: “Gate of Heaven” and “Beth-El [House of God]” as well as Luz, discussed yesterday.

The name “Beth El” is the center of a Talmudic commentary:

R. Eleazar also said, What is meant by the verse, “And many people shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Jacob’” [Isaiah 2:3]. ‘The God of Jacob,’ but not the God of Abraham and Isaac?

Not like Abraham, in connection with whom ‘mountain’ is written, as it is said to this day, ‘In the mountain where the Lord is seen’ (Gen. 22:14). Nor like Isaac, in connection with whom ‘field’ is written, as it is said, ‘And Isaac when out to meditate in the field at eventide’ [Gen. 24:63]. But like Jacob, who called Him ‘home’, as it is said, ‘And he called the name of that place Beth-el [God is a home].
— Pesachim 88a, adapted from Soncino public-domain translation

—Soninco adds this note on the final verse: [Gen. 28:19] Visits to the mountain and the held are only made at certain times, but a home is permanent. Thus this teaches that man must live permanently in God.
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Legends of Luz

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), opens with Jacob, en route from his parents’ home to the land of his mother’s people. He stops for the night and dreams of a ladder, its top in heaven and its bottom on earth, with angels traveling up and down. In the dream, God is “standing over him” and speaking to him. Upon awakening, Jacob names the place “Beth-El [House of God].” The Torah adds: “but previously the name of the city had been Luz.”

Rabbinic and later Jewish tradition offer a variety of comments on the two place names and their connection to Jacob’s experience. This post and tomorrow’s briefly explore two of these name-threads:
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Amichai: Change, God, Pit, and Mikveh

UPDATE April 15: See also Fabrangen’s Omer Blog for more on “full of water.”

Imagery of a pit [bor] appears over the years in the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Frequently, as in the Joseph story (“the pit was empty, there was no water in it” [Gen. 37:24]), Amichai’s pits are without water. Toward the end of his life, however, he published a poem in which a mikveh — which can be understood as a sort of pit filled with water — plays a prominent role:

Then we came to a ritual bath in ruins….
…Speak O my soul, sing
O my soul to the God who is Himself part of the cycle
of praise and lament, curse and blessing.
Speak O my soul, sing O my soul, Change is God
and death is his prophet.
–Yehuda Amichai, stanza #10, “Jewish Travel: God is Change and Death is His Prophet” in Open Closed Open

Here, for Temple Micah’s study group and anyone else interested, are a few references for exploring this idea.
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Shavuot: Forward, Eyes Wide Open

The story of Ruth, read on the holiday of Shavuot – the time of the giving of Torah — centers around a “redeemer”: a “redeemer” in the financial sense, a male relative to retrieve the land holdings of a widow; and a “redeemer” in broader understandings, encompassing messianic hopes and God as ultimate Redeemer of Israel. And the story of Ruth itself is a powerful redeemer in its own right.

Ancestresses of Ruth’s Story

Ruth is one in a line of women – including Lot’s daughters (Gen 19:30-38) and Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38) – who use their sexuality, one of the few powers women could employ in the world of these ancient texts, to accomplish crucial goals for themselves, their families, and all Israel. Boaz is one in a line of men – including Lot and Judah – who are seduced by younger women as part of larger schemes in which the men function chiefly as seed-providing tools.

Lot and his unnamed daughters flee Sodom as it is destroyed. According to some commentary, Lot knew that only a few cities, including their own, had been destroyed; his daughters, however, feared that they were the last people on earth. In an effort to continue the human race, each, in turn, plies their father with drink and then seduces him in order to conceive. Lot, in a drunken sleep throughout both incidents, is “not aware of her lying down or her getting up” (Gen. 19:33, 35).

We’re told that the sons of Lot’s daughters become progenitors of the Moabite and Ammonite peoples. Israel is later forbidden from allowing these peoples into their congregation, for reasons linked to these peoples’ behavior and not to their conception. (Deut. 23:4; rabbinic tradition later determines that only men of these peoples were banned). But the Genesis story moves on before we learn anything about the lives of Lot and his daughters post-seduction. top


Tamar dresses as a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law after he delays in giving his third son to her in leverite marriage. Judah has thus prevented her from conceiving a child to support her in life; denied his own son (her first husband) the chance for an heir, and, in some understandings, a rebirth of his soul; and added another obstacle in the birth of the child who was to become – and some say Tamar knew would become – an ancestor of the Davidic dynasty.

Tamar is veiled, and Judah does not recognize her during the time he is intimate with her. Later, when Tamar is pregnant and on trial for sexual misconduct, she sends out Judah’s wrap, staff, and signet – which he’d given her as pledge in lieu of her “prostitute’s fee.” Only at that point does he recognize the woman with whom he fathered a child. He takes that opportunity to say, “she is right” (Gen. 38:26). top
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