“Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust,” Sherman Alexie writes in a poem that finds Moses at the Burning Bush. Alexie reaches this mountaintop via a circuitous path that touches on roller coasters, obsessive worry about failing to turn off the stove, Jimmy Durante, Dante Alighieri, and another poet‘s obsession with the fact that “Dante” is, in reality, short for “Durante.” (More on Dante/Durante)

Do you think, after Moses talked to the Burning Bush, that he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the bush was still burning, and presented a clear and present danger? Do you think Moses hiked back up the mountain to make sure? If I claim that, in Hebrew, Moses is spelled Mos Eisley, will you look it up? Of course, you must. Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust.
— “Hell,” IN What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned
(Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2014), p.51

Of course, I looked it up.

'Star Wars' image (property of LucasFilms)

“Star Wars” image: Mos Eisley Cantina musicians (property of LucasFilms)

Wookieepedia explains that Mos Eisley (pronounced “Moss Ize-lee”) is an important location in the Star Wars universe: a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where wise visitors are cautious, it’s the site of the cantina (right) where Luke Skywalker first meets Han Solo and Chewbacca….Not, as this ignorant Star Trek fan guessed, some odd conflation of Mos Def and the Isley Brothers.

Perhaps Alexie is hinting at some kind of parallel between Luke Skywalker and Moses (spelled “מֹשֶׁה” [Moe-SHEH] in Hebrew, BTW, and thought to come from a verb meaning “to draw out”). If so, I know too little about Star Wars to catch it. Instead, my minimal wiki-knowledge sets me on a different path.

Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band (image: RedHotJazz.com)

Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band (RedHotJazz.com)

ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

I imagine Durante, in his jazz years and his later comic persona, with gigs at that alien cantina. Could Alexie have had this in mind, I wonder, when he came up with the inventive spelling for Moses?
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Leadership and community are key elements in the early chapters of Exodus. We see a variety of strong actions and interactions: 1) Moses sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew; he responds by killing the Egyptian and then hides the deceased in the sand. 2) Moses sees two Hebrew men fighting and tries to stop […]

This post originally appeared on Clergy Beyond Borders’ News/Views blog, June 9, 2011.


Sibling prophets argue but find a way to remain together in the third Bible portion in our “wilderness” series. The reading — Numbers 8:1-12:16 — includes a dramatic, rather cryptic, passage* involving the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, covered in “scales, white like snow” [tzaraat ka-sheleg, in Hebrew] (Numbers 12:10).

The same snowy scales appear on Moses’ arm at the Burning Bush (Exodus 4:5). In the Qur’an (7:108, 20:22), Moses’ arm becomes “[shiny] white without blemish” or “luminous.” In both Islamic and Jewish tradition, the white/shining skin is a sign of prophecy.

In Jewish and Christian tradition, tzaraat — which is often translated as “leprosy” in English bibles — is also associated with gossip and other sins of the tongue. In the passage here, Miriam and Aaron “speak against” their brother. Related commentaries include background tales of conversations involving Moses’ wife and Miriam.

Still, the “speaking against” Moses in the text and the family issues in the commentary center around prophecy. Three prophets in one family — and Moses’ wife Zipporah has her own encounter with the divine (Exodus 4:23-26) — seems to have its challenges.

God chastises the speakers, saying: “How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” However, the prophetic siblings stand up for one another before God and remain together throughout the episode. In fact, Numbers 12 is the only passage in the Torah which mentions Aaron, Miriam and Moses together.

In the Qur’an (2:136), we read:

Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants [literally: “grandchildren”], and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”

Miriam’s episode of tzaraat may be a sign of prophecy or of divisive speech, or both. But the episode is limited by God so that a joint future — with all three siblings traveling together — is possible.

This week’s “wilderness” reading is called in Hebrew “Beha’alotekha” ([“in your lighting (of the lamps)”]. One message we can glean from it is the danger of believing that ours is the only light.
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The earliest prayer links in Va-etchanan come in the first verse, long before what is probably the portion’s most famous passage: the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9). In fact, there are prayer links galore in the portion’s first word: “va-etchanan” [I pleaded, implored]. Some commentaries examine details of the communication between Moses and God as the portion opens. Some focus, more generally, on what prayer can (or should) mean to regular folks.

**Speaking of communication, please see the query below about sources and editing. Thoughts most welcome.**
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The story [of the blasphemer, Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10-23] is noteworthy in that it is one of only four incidents in the Torah in which Moses is shown asking God how to decide an issue (the others are Numbers 9:6ff, 15:32ff, and 27:1ff). Moses sought God’s judgment because the punishment for blasphemy had not yet been detailed. More significant, however, is the placement of this story. It is, in effect, a cautionary tale, coming as it does on the heels of the sections demanding holiness and morality from the Israelites. Continue reading

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

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“Now about the hairy-goat of hattat,* Moses inquired, yes, **
inquired [darosh ** darash]…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:16).

*Fox leaves this untranslated; usually rendered “sin offering.”

** According to those who count such things — the Masoretes, for example — the word “darosh” appears in the first half of the Torah, word-wise, and “darash” appears in the second half. I.e., the words “darosh darash” are at the center of the Torah.

Other translations use “investigated carefully” (Onkelos), “inquired about” (JPS), and “insistently sought” (Alter) for this phrase. Only Fox preserves the repetitious nature of the emphatic Hebrew construction.***

Why is Moses inquiring about the goat? What is this particular verse/phrase doing at the center of the Torah? Why mark half and not, e.g., thirds? Those questions are beyond “Something to Notice” (which is not, please notice, “Something Fully Explained.”)

Other Centers

Verse 11:42 “Anything going about on its belly [al-gachon]…” contains the middle letter, by the way, and the vav is written larger for this reason: gimmel-chet-VAV-nun.

There is some disagreement about where the middle verse is to be found: “then he should shave around the bald spot…” (13:33) is listed as the middle verse in Babylonia Talmud Kiddushin 30a.*** The Masoretes list “He placed the breastpiece on him…” (8:8) as the middle verse.
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