Found through Alter’s Translation

1

Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Lost in Translation? No, lost without fact-checking

1

Robert Alter completed an amazing project. His translations of the Bible continue to offer new, sometimes more literary, possibly more “accurate” renderings of the text. But scholars everywhere seem blinded by the sheer number of pages just published or otherwise befuddled into teaching falsehoods and half truths.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for example, offered a ten-minute ode to Alter’s translation as a commentary to this week’s Torah portion (parashat Bo: Exod 10:1-13:6). Here’s his podcast, “What is Lost in Translation.” In praising Alter, however, he manages to inadvertently dismiss the work of his own movement.

Darkness and Light

Toward the end of the podcast, Jacobs focuses on one phrase in Alter’s translation and commentary:

“‘…that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwelling places.”

a darkness one can feel. The force of the hyperbole, which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness…
— translation/commentary on Ex 10:21, 23 from The Five Books of Moses. (NY: Norton, 2004)

Jacobs cites this material as though it were new, although Alter published this translation and commentary in 2004. More importantly, I think, Jacobs fails to note that Alter’s English differs very little from the older translations widely available for decades — in fact, some published by his own Union for Reform Judaism.

Here, for comparison are Jewish Publication Society versions of the last century:

“‘…that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”
— “New JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1985)
“‘…even darkness which may be felt.’
…but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
— “Old JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1917)

Alter’s “a darkness one can feel” is slightly pithier and so somewhat stronger — and as Jacobs notes, closer to the more succinct** Hebrew, v’yamush, hoshekh [וְיָמֵשׁ, חֹשֶׁךְ] — than the JPS versions. But Alter’s “in their dwelling places” for b’moshevotam [בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם] is slightly longer than “in their dwellings” of the JPS. So, I’m not sure that, in this particular set of verses, the differences are worthy of great note, all told.

King James and Robert Alter

Jacobs, like a number of others commenting on Alter’s work, compares Alter’s work to the King James Version. (Maybe they’re all reading the same press release?) But Jews and Christians have been translating the bible for many generations since 1611, and all innovation since then is not attributable to Robert Alter, no matter how amazing his recent accomplishment. The weirdest — and, I feel, saddest — thing about Jacobs’ praise for this particular verse of Alter’s translation is that his podcast could just as easily have cited a ten- or twenty-eight-year-old publication from the URJ itself:

  • The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (NY: URJ Press & Women of Reform Judaism, 2008) uses modified “New JPS” language, including the verses as cited above;
  • the 2005 URJ version, which I don’t happen to have handy, also uses JPS;
  • the 1981 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, from UAHC [now URJ], uses a mid-century version of the JPS translation, with the exact language quoted above.

…This is not to say that Alter has not provided new and interesting perspectives or given us some beautiful new language to help us appreciate the Hebrew original. But I fear that what really is new and interesting in Alter’s work is being lost in all the repetition of tired nonsense, false comparisons, and outright omissions in discussing his work.

Moreover, it seems truly dangerous, given the current state of government and journalism, to share information in ways that might mislead and to teach in ways that fail to provide context for “new” ideas….

A final quibble with Jacobs’ podcast: He makes a point of noting that Robert Alter (b. 1935) is in his 80s now, as he completed this huge project. If we’re going to stress the author’s age and/or the number of years he worked on the project, however, let’s be accurate. Alter was not yet 70 when The Five Books of Moses was published, and he was in his early 70s when his Book of Psalms (Norton: 2007) came out. Again, not to say it’s NOT an accomplishment to translate the Torah or the Psalms at 70 or for an individual to complete a bible translation at 83 — or any age! Just that we cannot be re-writing history by inattention to facts.


Note on the 2018 W.W. Norton Publication
A note about these books as books: While I remain in awe of Alter’s scholarship and literary merit, I am deeply disappointed in this three volume set ($125). The set does offer new material, particularly in the Prophets. But there is no new introduction to the Bible as a whole, and there is no additional commentary on the completion of the project; in fact, each of the three volumes repeats verbatim the same introduction to the Bible and its translation that appeared in Alter’s Five Books of Moses in 2004!

If this picture is clear enough, and you’re really curious, note that the section numbering differs in the two volumes, because the section specific to the Five Books was moved.

intro alter

2019 (L) and 2004 (R) introductions to Alter’s translations

Final plea to scholars: I would personally appreciate, as I’m sure would many others, a review or analysis of the recent publication which actually addresses specifics — in organization and layout as well as in content — with a focus on what is actually new in 2018.

Post updated 1/13/19: mostly in formatting, correction of a few typos; also addition of citation to UAHC 1981 Torah (above) and plea here. See also, “Found through Alter’s Translation,” further to this discussion, posted on 1/12/


NOTE:
**In the podcast cited here, Jacobs also compares Alter’s translation of Psalm 23 with that of the King James Version, focusing on the darkness phrase relevant to Parashat Bo. Alter’s “vale of death’s shadow” is more direct than the KJV, “valley of the shadow of death,” while maintaining the connection with death — which some newer translations lose:

valley of deepest darkness — JPS 1985
darkest valley — New International Version (1973-2011)
valleys dark as death — American Bible Society, 2006
dark valley of death — God’s Word, 1995

Do note, for clarity of record, that Alter’s translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms was published in 2007.
BACK

“Spend the Night”

My original thought, when I began this series of posts on Psalm 30, revolved around complexities of emotion as our nation responded to hate-driven, racist shootings in Louisville (10/24) and Pittsburgh (10/27), added to the host of other “situations and states of mind — griefs, or joys, that may be brand new, or three or 20 or 400 years old” — already present for individuals and communities. I wrote then, as I launched one of my annual “National Novel Writing Month-Rebel” projects, that I hoped focusing on the psalm’s “powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community.”

Two months out, I still have much to process, but I’ve learned a lot. I plan to continue working toward some sort of coherent collection of thoughts, resources, and questions on Psalm 30. Meanwhile, as I bring this series to a close, I am reminded of the teaching I shared earlier from Rabbi Diane Elliot:

When I take time to work with a word or a phrase — chanting it in my own time, rolling it around in my mouth, and letting it move through my whole body — then when I say the phrase quickly, all of that backstory is there for me. It can move me into a stream of consciousness.
— IN Making Prayer Real, p.74 (original post with citation)

I hope some of what I’ve shared has served a similar function for words and phrases of Psalm 30, and that the “backstory” has been, or will be, helpful to readers. We’ve spent time, for instance, with “glory” and “pit,” with “the House” and “dedication,” as well as with phrases, whole verses, the full psalm, and a “ring” of psalms. And, because it’s still on my mind, here are a few more thoughts on the most recent word-focus: “יָלִין [yalin],” in its various translations.

Overnighting, by any other name

The Evan-Shoshan Concordance (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1998) lists “לוּן,לין” (lun, lin) as one word with two meanings, 71 occurrences of the first which relates to overnighting, and 14 occurrences of the second, which is generally translated as something like “grumble” or “murmur”: “And the people murmured [וַיִּלֹּנוּ] against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?'” (Ex 15:24), e.g.

Strong’s Concordance, originally published in 1890, sorts and numbers 8674 root words in the Hebrew Bible. “לוּן” — which they transliterate as “luwn (loon)” — is #3885. Depending on the on-line source, Strong’s finds 83-87 occurrences, combining the two meanings: “to lodge, pass the night, abide” and “to be obstinate, grumble.” (See below on the discrepancy in the two sources and general information on the Strong’s source I prefer.)

Many instances of “לוּן” in Tanakh are pretty prosaic. But some notable, more poetic uses are

  • Ruth 1:16, Ruth to Naomi: “…where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge…”
  • Ruth 3:13, Boaz to Ruth: “Stay for the night,” or “Lodge here for the night,”*
  • Prov 15:31, “He whose ear heeds the discipline of life Lodges among the wise”
  • Song 1:13, “My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh Lodged between my breast” or “My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh, that lies between my breast” **

— JPS 1985, except:
*Brenton Septuagint, 1884
**World English, 1997

And it’s the JPS version of the last verse here which Robert Alter recently cited as the impetus for his decades-long project to translate the Tanakh himself.

“Lodged”?!

Author Avi Steinberg asked Alter what was wrong with existing Bible translations, i.e, “what motivated him to undertake this massive project.” In response, Steinberg writes, Alter “offered an example, reciting for me the Song of Songs, Chapter 1, Verse 13, as it appears in the popular translation of the Jewish Publication Society.” The story continues:

“Lodged?” Alter said to me, his startling blue eyes widening. “Like a chicken bone?”

Alter’s own translation of the verse — “A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,/All night between my breasts” — is far more seductive, with its meowing alliteration of Ms, his triplicate myrrh-my-me, which echoes the rolling three Rs of the Hebrew, tsrorr hamor.

…By dropping the verb [יָלִין] entirely from the translation, the dramatic urgency and nocturnal mood of the verb is somehow deepened. If the old Hebrew word is now veiled in the English, it is also more present, under the covers.
New York Times Sunday Magazine, 12/20/18

Steinberg goes on to use this particular verse to illustrate what he calls Alter’s “composite art,” harmonizing voices of the past — including the 1995 The Song of Songs: The World’s First Great Love Poem by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch — and present.

There is much more to say, at some point, about translation in general and of the Bible specifically, about Alter’s work and the functions of biblical translation. But I want to bring this idea of dropping the verb to intensify the mood back to Psalm 30.

Formerly Known as “Lodge”

Alter and Steinberg direct a lot of attention to the imagery and poetry of Song 1:13, and to the need to re-translate “lodged,” in specific. Both speak extensively, given the length of the feature, about the interplay of erotic and poetic there and Alter’s eagerness to restore “original colors and shadings” that may have “faded under the accumulations of theological and historical readings.”

Alter’s commentary in the (2015) Song of Songs calls 1:12 “an appropriately sexy beginning to this richly sensual poem,” and lauds the “combination of delightfulness and sensuality” in 1:13. Alter’s commentary (2007) calls Psalm 30 a “thanksgiving psalm,” de-emphasizing the half of the psalm which expresses non-gratitude, thus flattening feeling and removing nuance. Where inadequate translation of “יָלִין [yalin]” in Song of Songs apparently launched a 3000-page, multi-decade project for Alter, the same verb yields “beds down” in Psalm 30 and a comment about the poet’s “upbeat vision of life.” There is no musing about what it might mean to “bed down weeping,” or how it would be to do so and then find joy in the morning….

Other translations and commentaries for Psalm 30 have been modified to fit liturgical use or even specific musical settings; the psalm has also been adapted for personal devotional recitation. It seems clear Alter has different goals in mind. And the overall poetry and purpose of the Psalms differs from that of Song of Songs. But can we use some of our explorations of the verb formerly known as “lodge” in Song of Songs to restore some “original colors and shadings” to Psalm 30?

Night and Not

In 1967, the Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on the Ed Sullivan Show. But Sullivan thought the title line too racy for a family show, so the band agreed to remove “night” from the performance and substitute “time.” (Story here, along with an odd montage video; full 1/15/67 song below).

Still, we can hear spots where Mick Jagger lowers or muffles his voice and the audience loudly fills in the original “night.”




Just as some feelings around “abide” may be forever changed by a movie (see previous post), the phrase “spend the night” is forever colored for some of us by this weird blip in popular culture. Not sure what, if anything, this means for understanding Psalm 30. But I think it does illustrate that folks hear what they expect or want to hear…or they shout it out themselves if an adjustment doesn’t suit them.

In the case of personal and communal prayer, I think we have some latitude in terms of how we interpret a particular piece of liturgical poetry, maybe even an obligation to help our communities relate meaningfully, perhaps provocatively, to the prayers. What that means for proper translation of sacred text may be a different story.


30 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but here, finally, is the last installment of this series on Psalm 30.


NOTE:
Concordance Discrepancies
The Evan-Shoshan Hebrew concordance lists “lanu” in Isaiah 10:29 as an instance related to overnighting. But Strong’s treats this “lanu” as the preposition. Both take v’lanu in Judges 19:13 as the overnight-related word (#3885 in the Strong listing). I am not sure how often such differences occur, but it’s something to keep in mind.

In addition, the Bible Hub version of Strong’s lists “grumblings/murmurings” as a separate word from “grumble/murmur.” Therefore, their count of #3885 (“grumble” as well as “lodge, abide,…”) differs from what is listed on other sites. Again, worth noting.

In addition, Bible Hub has some glitches due to coding or proofreading errors, including one relevant to root #3885: The verse pages for 1 Kings 19:9 include an instance of #3885 — וַיָּ֣לֶן [way·yā·len)], “and spent the night” — with appropriate links. One of the summary pages matches this information, while another does not (as of 12/27/18; I reported the mix-up, so it might be fixed in future.)

I don’t know if such glitches are rare or common, but this does suggest double-check before completely relying on any one page in any search of importance. I still highly recommend this Bible Hub, though.

Bible Hub
Bible Hub is a Christian site, and it does not hide that; there is even a “statement of faith” for readers who want that and really search it out (scroll to the bottom menu, visit “About,” and then follow the link). “However,” they write, “we wish to encourage everybody, regardless of their belief system, to use this site to learn more about the Bible.”

I find the site very usable — more so than many others on the web — for Hebrew bible, without intrusive Christian content, as long as one sticks to Bible and translation, not commentary.

It is very powerful, quick and easy to use, and incorporates some handy resources, like Strong’s Concordance. Their parallel translations offer many versions of one verse on the same page — from various Christian denominations, with a few Jewish versions — plus key Hebrew words with links to concordances and dictionaries. It is also possible to read the full Hebrew text and transliteration with links to more on each word. Many other options — so many, in fact, that I sometimes find it hard sometimes to navigate to a specific format. But I don’t know any other site that offers as many options…for free.

TANSTAAFL, of course, but the ads are relatively small, not obtrusive, and not evangelical — unless I’m completely oblivious (which does happen with me and ads, I’m told).

Sefaria is a differently powerful tool, and Mechon-Mamre is useful as well. Bible.ort.org works very well for Torah and Haftarah, especially if leyning is a goal. But Bible Hub is one of my favorite on-line tools for Bible basics. (I don’t use the app, but that is an option for those who prefer.)
BACK

Weeping Abides or Does it Lodge?

2

“Joy comes in the morning,” or a similar translation of “v’laboker rinah,” is probably the most often quoted phrase in Psalm 30. The phrase preceding this, however, is one that translators disagree on rendering. Exploring the many ways “יָלִין [yalin]” is translated has made it a favorite word of mine. Here, in the penultimate set of comments on Psalm 30, from a series that began November 1, are some thoughts about this word and about translation of bible and prayers, more generally.

Complexities of Verse 6

Here is the Hebrew, along with transliteration:

כִּי רֶגַע, בְּאַפּוֹ– חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ:
בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי; וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה.
ki rega’ b’appo — chayyim birtzono
ba-erev yalin bekhi; v’laboker rinah

Here is one translation:

…for momentary is His anger, lifelong His favor.
6: By night weeping abides,
but morning brings joy!
— pp.193-94, My People’s Prayer Book
See below for citation and note on anger/favor

6: “Weeping abides” Literally, “weeping spends the night,” but we don’t have a verb for that in English. Another possible reading of the Hebrew is “one spends the night weeping.”
— p. 195, J. Hoffman (TRANSLATION), one of several commentary threads in My People’s Prayer Book

I chose this translation, instead of those more often quoted in this blog (JPS 1917 and JPS 1985, found at Mechon-Mamre and Sefaria, respectively), because I think it makes clear some of the complexities and because it specifically discusses the verb “יָלִין [yalin].”

I also like the above translation because it employs the less usual verb “abides” for “יָלִין [yalin].” (More on this below.) More common translations of the same verb in Psalm 30:6 are “weeping may…

  • stay for the night,”
  • last…,”
  • endure…,” or
  • tarry…”

The latter is used in the 1917 JPS, the King James Version (1611) has “endureth,” and Christian Standard (Holman, 2017) has “may stay overnight.”

A few variations are

  • “One may lie down weeping at nightfall,” 1985 JPS
  • “Tears may flow in the night,” Good News, 1992
  • “Weeping may lodge for the night,” Int’l Standard Version 1996-2012
  • “One may experience sorrow during the night,” NET, 1996-2006*
  • “At night we may cry,” Contemporary English, Amer. Bible Society, 2006
  • “At even remaineth weeping,” Young’s Literal, 2013

*New ENGLISH Translation, not to be confused with Evangelical and other NETs.

All of the above translations, with the exception of the 1985 Jewish Publication Society and My People’s Prayer Book, can be found on the very useful Christian resource site, Bible Hub.

Lingers, Beds Down, Abides, and Lodges

Lingers and Beds Down
Sim Shalom chooses a less usual verb for “יָלִין [yalin]”:

Tears may linger for a night,
but joy comes with the dawn.
— Rabbinical Assembly, 1989

“Lingers” can have a light, harmless, connotation: We might linger over coffee or a cross-word puzzle, for example, without ill effect, unless we’re delaying someone else or needed activity. So, tears might stick around past their desired or expected departure time without provoking abject desperation. It’s more sinister, however, when symptoms or doubts, fears, and grief linger — and in that sense, lingering tears could make for a deeply troubled night. The verb might work in both senses, for Psalm 30.

Similarly, Robert Alter opts for a less usual expression:

At evening one beds down weeping,
and in the morning, glad song.
The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary (NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007)

Rather than dwelling on possible consequences for the psalmist of “bedding down weeping,” Alter explains this verse by saying, “This upbeat vision of life has, of course, been manifested in recent experience of the speaker.”

Alter does say that verse 9 “recalls the words of desperate supplication that he [the psalmist] addressed to God from his straits.” This seems a distant, maybe faint, memory, though, as Alter translates and comments on psalm 30, which he describes, simply, as “a thanksgiving psalm.”

Both “lingers” and “beds down” are choices that seem a little distant from the general usage of lamed-vav-nun in the Bible: Jacob is neither lingering nor bedding down in the ladder and wrestling incidents (Gen 28:11, Gen 32:22), for example, and neither verb would work for leaving the Pesach sacrifice over til morning (Exod 34:25). In context of the psalm, though, these phrases provoke some thought about how we understand our own and others’ relationship to weeping:

Does it show up and linger, uninvited, like a bad cold?
Do we have the choice to bed down without it? Should we?
Or is it a property of the night?
Are tears and joy, weeping and glad song an inevitable and regular cycle?
Can we, as individuals or communities, ever view the weeping as long ago and focus on the song?

Abides
I should probably confess here that, while I love several of the Coen brothers’ movies, “The Big Lebowski” was not originally, and never became, a favorite of mine. But I realize that many people today, because of that film, attach specific connotations to “abides.” (See, e.g., “The Dude Abides.”)

Even Merriam-Webster knows this:

Comments by users of this dictionary suggest that many people who are interested in the meaning of the word abide are motivated by one of two rather distinct things: the Bible, in which, for instance, Jesus calls upon his followers to “abide in me”; and the movie The Big Lebowski, in which Jeffrey Lebowski (aka “The Dude”) proclaims that “The Dude abides”….The exact meaning of “The Dude abides” is a topic of some debate, but clearly there is some notion of the constancy of Lebowski himself—metaphysically perhaps—being asserted.
— Merriam-Webser’s abide page, scroll way down

For me, “weeping abides” carries the meaning of “remaining stable or fixed in a state” or “continuing in place,” which I find captures at least one mood of the psalm: there is exultation and praise for rescue, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that the depths were fleeting or trivial. “Abides” captures the psalm’s palpable sense of despair and fear remaining fixed long enough to leave a mark — whether on an individual or a people.

Perhaps fans of The Dude also hear “weeping abides” in a way that fits with verse 6’s cyclical rhythm and the psalm’s overall sense — reinforced in daily recitation — that life is full of ups and downs, and that we, individually and communally, must learn to ride them out and celebrate joy when it manifests. (Fans please share your thoughts.)

I am unsure if the 1998 film had reached cult status when My People’s Prayer Book chose the verb “abide” for its translation. I think it’s fair to say that the movie’s popularity changed the way many people heard the word in later years. But I also venture to say that language is always changing in both predictable and unpredictable ways which affect how Bible translations are heard post-publication.

Lodges
Discussing “יָלִין [yalin]” (above), Joel Hoffman says: “We don’t have a verb for [‘spend the night’] in English.” We do, however, have the travel-industry argot in which “overnight” is a verb — although I think it fails to strike the right mood for Psalm 30. And, while “lodge,” on its own, is more general than “spend the night,” it’s pretty close. Moreover, “lodge” has several meanings that work with verse 6:

  • weeping may be temporarily residing before joy comes in the morning;
  • tears might be quartered with us (like it or not) til morning’s reprieve;
  • weeping might be fixed in place until dawn.

I find that all of these meanings work for me when I read, “Weeping may lodge for the night, but shouts of joy will come in the morning” (International Standard Version). This translation prompts me to ask different questions about how this lodger arrived at my door and where we will go from here.

But landlords no longer advertise “lodgings,” and it is more common now to “lodge a complaint” than “lodge in town.” When is a word too old-fashioned to make its point? And what do we lose when we allow words to fall out of favor or lose varieties of meaning?

Can any mortal mixture of earthly mould
Breathe such divine enchanting ravishment?
Sure something holy lodges in that breast
and with these raptures moves the vocal air;
to testify his hidden residence
— Milton, Comus (1634)

This piece was posted on 12/25/18 and updated 12/26 with some slight edits (grammar, typos, ordering, but no substantive change) and addition of citations for other uses of “יָלִין [yalin]” in Genesis and Exodus.


29 of 30 on Psalm 30
Being the penultimate in this No Longer National Novel Writing Month series on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).


CITATION NOTE:
My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries. Hoffman, Lawrence A., ed. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights. Ten volumes published over several years. Volume 5: Birkhot Hashachar (Morning Blessings), 2001.
BACK


ADDITIONAL NOTE:
My People’s Prayer Book is rare (unique? I haven’t seen it anywhere else) in its decision to include the “momentary…favor” half of verse 6 as the closing phrase of verse 5, emphasizing its connection to the preceding thought. Joel Hoffman includes this note:

5 “Momentary is His anger, lifelong His favor” Our translation follows one common understanding of the enigmatic Hebrew here, the other being “momentary is His anger; life results from His favor.” Yet a third possible reading of the Hebrew is “a moment of His anger, but long life is His will” (that is, “He wants a moment of His anger but long life [for us]”)
— pp.193, 195

For a variety of reasons, I personally do not dwell much on this phrase when reciting Psalm 30. The topic of God’s anger and favor is way too big and difficult for me to tackle at all. I don’t think my thirty posts on this psalm have even approached it, and I’m leaving it entirely, perhaps for another time. But, as always, glad to hear from anyone who does dwell on it and/or has resources to share.
BACK

The Treasure and the Favor

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.2

Just as the stories of Exile and Return include people of quite different mindsets, Exodus peoples are not monolithic, Rabbi Gerry Serotta told me recently. He suggests that #ExploringBabylon could profitably consider some differences among Egyptians in the Exodus tale and look at related texts, in this portion and earlier, about Egyptians becoming “favorably disposed” toward the Israelites.

Difference

Rabbi Serotta points to three groups of Egyptians:

  • those who left with the Israelites — וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב — “and also the erev-rav [often “mixed multitudes”; Alter uses “motley throng”]” (Ex 12:38);
  • those who did not join the Israelites but gave gold and silver and “raiment/cloaks” (Ex 12:35; see also “The Powers and the Wealth“); and
  • Pharaoh (and, perhaps, other unrepentant oppressors).

 
He adds that it’s good practice to look for the variety of people and perspectives in biblical narrative because “variety is God’s plan.” We see this in the story of Bavel (Genesis Chapter 11) and in many later teachings about the value of galut [exile] and dispersion.

God’s preference for variety is a hard concept to hold in the midst of a tale with the themes “You are MY people and I am YOUR God” and “Let My people go that they may serve ME.” But it can be found in the Exodus tale and in centuries of Jewish teaching centered around it. Seeking out and naming variety within biblical stories helps us avoid pigeonholing people and stereotyping groups in the text, in history, and in contemporary life. Exploring and amplifying difference-celebrating strands of Jewish teaching, from ancient times to the present, provides a foundation for inter-group understanding and cooperation.

…It is no accident that Rabbi Serotta, who has dedicated his career to interfaith, religious freedom, and peace and justice work, is drawn to teachings on diversity and galut [exile]. He offers additional ideas for #ExploringBabylon that will take some time to research; this week, we gratefully continue to pursue his suggestion to “follow the treasure,” so to speak, which appears in this week’s torah portion (Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16), and its implications….

Boundaries

As discussed in the last episode, ancient commentaries on the gold and silver — mentioned in Ex 3:21-22, 11:2-3, and 12:35-36 (see below) — included the ideas of back wages/reparations and prior ownership of the wealth given to the fleeing Israelites. One important extension to the latter theme focuses on the prominence of women in this exchange to suggest that women used jewels and other portable wealth to bribe neighbors to overlook, or perhaps hide, their infant boys when Pharaoh decreed they be tossed into the river (exact citation temporarily AWOL, sorry).

Robert Alter notes, in his 2004 Five Books of Moses (see Source Materials), that “neighbor” and “sojourner” in 3:22 are feminine nouns, adding:

[The verse] reflects a frequent social phenomenon–also registered in the rabbinic literature of Late Antiquity–in which women constitute the porous boundary between adjacent ethnic communities: borrowers of the proverbial cup of sugar, sharers of gossip and women’s lore.

Alter goes on to insist, however, that exegesis which sees Egyptian women as lodgers in Israelite houses doesn’t match the plague narrative. (He then describes the overall tale as one of “Israelite triumphalism.” More on this below.)

Benno Jacob (1862-1945) also explores boundary crossing and long-term relationships which he sees as hidden in plain sight in Exodus:

The Israelites had settled as herdsmen, a necessary but disdained occupation in Egypt. The details of our story suggest that they were scattered throughout Egypt, which must have led to many personal friendships; only a systematically encouraged hate propaganda was able to change this.
Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible p.343


Protest and Change

Jacob extensively discusses the wealth exchange in Parashat Bo. He uses linguistic and narrative analysis to support his view that God wanted the Israelites and Egyptians to part on good terms and had repeatedly told Moses that was to be the end result. He argues that the Egyptians had already, before Pesach night, come around to seeking compassion and justice for the Israelites, and the farewell gifts are part of the evidence of a change in position:

The Egyptians’ gifts to the Israelites were a clear public protest against the policies of the royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience…a moral change; the receptive heart of the Egyptian people was now contrasted to the hard heart of Pharaoh.
— Jacob, p.343

He goes further, insisting that this must be a mutual change of heart, from peoples on both sides of the conflict. Jacob links the opening phrase of Ex 11:2 to the similar expression Joseph used in requesting burial for his father (Gen 50:4) and suggests that this link means God was trying to trigger positive feelings:

[God] knew that some Egyptians recalled Joseph, others would have been impressed by the miracles they had witnessed or now had a high a regard for Moses, so they would seek a friendly farewell….

God’s command Moses [Ex 11:2] simultaneously threatened Pharaoh and searched for peace between the two peoples. These peaceful relations were God’s principal concern during Israel’s last hours in Egypt. This was the true meaning of the farewell gifts which the Israelites sought and the Egyptians willingly gave.
— Jacob, p. 344 (emphasis in original)

Rabbi Shai Held, of Mechon Hadar, includes a poignant addendum on this teaching in “Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians.” Held quotes Jacob calling this episode “the most elevated and spiritual reconciliation among people; it was full of wisdom and love of fellow man” (p.339 in the above cited Jacob commentary). He then confesses skepticism as to whether Jacob’s story jives with the plain sense of the text but concludes:

One senses in Jacob’s words the insights of a brilliant exegete but also the pain of a rabbi and teacher in a Germany consumed by hate**….In a world suffused with bigotry and hostility, a world in which people of faith often marshal sacred texts to legitimate acts of cruelty and to extol hatred as a virtue, there is great power in reading Jacob’s words and being reminded: At the heart of the religious enterprise is the attempt to soften, and open, one’s heart, to God and to one-another. If even the Egyptians and the Israelites can be (successfully!) called to love one-another, then perhaps, even in the darkest of times, slim glimmers of hope are available to us.

**Held includes a footnote citing personal communication with R. Walter Jacob (Benno’s son) to confirm that his father was working on the Exodus commentary between 1934 and 1939, while still in Germany.

Two Final Comments

Just so we don’t lose sight of the triumphalist nature of the Exodus story in its basic literary form, here are a few more comments from just one scholar:

Denizens of simple farms and the relatively crude towns of Judea would have known about imperial Egypt’s fabulous luxuries, its exquisite jewelry, and the affluent among them would have enjoyed imported Egyptian linens and papyrus. It is easy to imagine how this tale of despoiling or stripping bare Egypt would have given pleasure to its early audiences.
— Alter, on Ex 3:22

Alter adds that the three “sister-wife stories” of Genesis — Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (12:1-10), Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (Gen 20:1-18), and Isaac and Rebecca in Gerar (26:1-16) — “adumbrate the Exodus narrative,” by portraying the couple as arriving with little and leaving with much. Despoiling, he argues, is “an essential part of the story of liberation from bondage in the early national traditions.”

And, finally, also from Benno Jacob:

The Israelites received gifts from their neighbors when they left the Babylonian Exile in a manner parallel to our narrative; these consisted of gold, silver, etc. Some were in response to the royal mandate and were intended for the rebuiling of the Temple while others were freely given (Ezek 1: 4,6)
— Jacob, p.341




TEXTS

And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty;
וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-חֵן הָעָם-הַזֶּה, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן, לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם.
but every woman shall ask of her neighbour, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment; and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.’
וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת; וְשַׂמְתֶּם, עַל-בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל-בְּנֹתֵיכֶם, וְנִצַּלְתֶּם, אֶת-מִצְרָיִם.
–Exodus 3:21-22

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’
דַּבֶּר-נָא, בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ, וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף, וּכְלֵי זָהָב.
And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי-פַרְעֹה, וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם.
–Exodus 11:2-3

Exodus 12:35-36 was copied in “The Powers and the Wealth
BACK

Benno Jacob

The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Interpreted by Benno Jacob. Walter Jacob and Yaakov Elman, trans. (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992).

Benno Jacob was a rabbi and scholar born in Breslau and active in German Jewish life through the 1930s. He spent his last five years in England, where he completed his Exodus commentary in 1940 and continued to revise it until his death, at age 83, in 1945. See short biography (by his son, Walter Jacob) in the Exodus commentary.

We learn know this biography that Jacob was still in Germany when most synagogues were burned; he watched the German Jewish community to which he’d dedicated his life destroyed; he witnessed the deportation (and eventual return) of his son, R. Ernst Jacob, to Dachau; and he lost nearly everything in moving to England in his late seventies.

Jacobs also produced a commentary on Genesis, which is, as I understand it, not fully available to English readers. Nechama Leibowitz, in her New Studies series, often quotes Benno Jacob, based on unpublished manuscripts. Her chapter on the wealth exchange in Bo makes use of Jacob’s 1924 article, “Gott und Pharao.”
BACK

Matot: Heavy Tongue, or the House of Cards theory of bible study

I want to begin by acknowledging my teacher, Max Ticktin z”l, for whom the period of shloshim is coming to a close and whose connections to Temple Micah are more varied and interesting than I knew before he died. Max taught me — and others in several generations — a lot about who is and is not an enemy, of ourselves personally and of the People Israel.

Dvar torah on parashat Matot, Temple Micah 7/30/16

These remarks focus on the story of vengeance, Numbers 30:1ff. This is an odd and troubling story in many ways. I chose to study it, in part because I worry about the consequences of failing to examine the uglier parts of our tradition, and in part because its very oddness makes it interesting.

A few odd things

One odd thing is that we are told Pinchas was the priest of the campaign, but we are not told who the military leader was.

Another odd thing is how the otherwise terse story stops to tell us that Pinchas brought the “holy utensils” — which many commentators believe means the Ark — and the shofar. This makes the whole thing sound terrifyingly like something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (Paramount 1981) or any of our contemporary wars that make use of religious iconography to wreak havoc on perceived enemies.

It seems to me — although I didn’t find commentary saying this, exactly — that the religious details, the priest, the holy utensils, and the shofar, hint at the spiritual aspect of the story. However distasteful and scary most of us find this today, the idea that a war should be fought to kill some people in order to preserve other people’s spiritual health, that was a part of biblical storytelling.

Midianites and Moabites, Balak and Pinchas

The Torah and many commentaries are clear that this whole issue with the Midianites is a war on people who tempted the Israelites into idolatrous behavior. We might think (and many commentaries remark) that the problem would be with the Moabites because it was the Moabites with whom Israel engaged in harlotry and idolatry in what is called here “the matter of Baal Peor.”

Back at the close of parashat Balak, we are told that Israel became “attached to Baal Peor and the wrath of God flared up against them” (citation). Moses and the judges had just ordered the Israelites to turn on one another and kill men attached to Baal Peor when the Israelite male, Zimri, and the Midianite female, Cozbi, perform what is generally understood to be public sex acts at the Tent of Meeting. Then Pinchas runs them through with a spear, stopping a plague we had not been told was happening. Just the one Midianite, Cozbi, is mentioned there. But both nations collaborated in hiring Balaam to curse Israel. So perhaps they were collaborating in the incidents involving Baal Peor, too. However it came to be, God told Moses back in chapter 25, at the start of parashat Pinchas, to harass [tsaror] the Midianites and kill them because they had attached [tsorerim] Israel “through the conspiracy against you [the Israelites] in the matter of Peor.”

Hasidic commentary says this harassing is a sort of eternal command, because the temptation to the Israelites will persist. The idea is that once they have tasted debauchery, it will be impossible to keep desire from arising again. So Israel must now be eternally harassing those who harassed them with temptation.

If the Israelites could have been warned some other way to be eternally vigilant to stop evil urges in themselves, we might have an easier time with the lesson. But that is not what Or HaChaim teaches, and that is not how the Torah text unfolds. Instead….

God tells Moses to harass the Midianites in chapter 25. And then we have a census and some legal material, a list of offerings, and a long treatise on vows. After all that, here in chapter 31, God tells Moses to take vengeance — now the verb is different, nekom –against the Midianites.

This is another odd bit and one of my favorites.

Another odd thing

Back when the whole mess started, we have a break between portions introduced right at the height of the Baal Peor matter. Israel’s idolatry and the incident of Zimri & Cozbi ends parashat Balak. Pinchas is rewarded for his action that stops Cozbi & Zimri in the next portion. And that’s where we see the command to harass Midian, at the start of parshat Pinchas.

The portion break suggests that the story was just too far out of control and the Rabbis wanted to cool things off….This is a very famous break, often discussed in the commentary. For more, see “Pinchas and the scary friend….But that’s a later, conscious choice of how we are to read and learn this text. The Torah itself inserts the five-chapter break between the precipitating events and God’s call for harassment, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, this episode of vengeance.

Moreover, we have so many odd things in both places. Pinchas acts to stop a plague that is not mentioned before it stops. Moses and God speak of a conspiracy against the Israelites involving sexual misconduct. But the only conspiracy we’re told about in the text is the one to hire Balaam to curse the people. Balaam is blamed (in commentary and in the text here) for whatever sexual acts and idolatry are happening, even though the last we heard of him, he went home after blessing Israel with words we still celebrate every morning in the prayers. (See, e.g., “Balak prayer links”.)

Missing Bits

I think the missing bits and the halting way the story is told suggest a struggle — with facts, perhaps, or with feelings and ideologies that lead to death and disaster. If we take nothing else away from this, I believe the Torah wants to ensure that conspiracy and war and people turning on one another is not read smoothly or accepted easily.

Avivah Zornberg, the brilliant and very Freudian teacher of Torah, believes the Torah itself has an unconscious that is suppressing trauma. (See The Murmuring Deep, citation coming). I’m not sure I buy her whole theory, but I do think we should listen to the pauses and the stuttering and the weird missing bits as closely as we listen to the story tht reads more easily… maybe more closely.

Midianites: enemies?

And meanwhile Moses, who argued with God so many times before has nothing to say in the text in support of the Midianites who protected and nurtured him in his youth. Nothing to say about his extended family and the legacy of Jethro, his father-in-law, who contributed so much to his own learning and helped Israel set up a judicial system.

It’s not much of a surprise that we don’t hear from Zipporah, as we rarely hear from women, even ones who face down God to save their husbands from death (see the “night incident” at the inn in early Exodus; citation coming). But Moses has nothing to say on her behalf?

We’re not the first generation to notice the oddness of this incident and Moses’s close connection to Midianites. Early commentary says that is why, although God tells Moses to exact vengeance, Moses sends others and stays back himself. Of course, this says nothing about the fact that he lets it happen, anyway, even appears to orchestrate it; it also discounts the fact that Moses is quite aged here and perhaps unable to command in battle.

But the interesting point to note, I think, is that Numbers Rabbah acknowledged the relationship between Moses and Midian, and tries to address how hard it all was and how thoroughly entangled were all the players here.

The contemporary biblical literary teacher Robert Alter says this about Baal Peor in chapter 25:

The Israelite attitude toward its neighbors appears to have oscillated over time and within different ideological groups between xenophobia, a fear of being drawn off its own spiritual path by its neighbors, and an openness to alliance and interchange with surrounding peoples.

–Alter’s Torah commentary

In reference to this passage in chapter 31, he says:

Either two conflicting traditions are present in these texts, or, if we try to conceive this as a continuous story, Moses, after the Baal Peor episode reacts with particular fury against the Midianiate women (not to speak of all the males) because he himself is married to one of them and feels impelled to demonstrate his unswerving dedication to protecting Israel from alien seduction. But it must be conceded that the earlier picture of the Midianite priest Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, as a virtual monotheist and a benign councilor to Israel does not accord with the image in these chapters of the Midianite women enticing the Israelits to pagan excesses.

One more possibility comes to mind….

House of Cards theory of bible analysis

Maybe there was a conspiracy involving Balaam and the Midianite kings but orchestrated by some other entity for reasons of their own, some kind of House-of-Cards-type plot to discredit the Midianites and turn Israel against them — or to make us believe Midian and Israel were enemies and would always be. Maybe the plot was so successful that Moses turned against his own earlier supporters because of it, so successful that the narrator can make us believe the story really moves from “go kill more people to undo you own spiritual troubles” to instructions for how to become ritually clean after carrying out more vengeance. But whichever Frank Underwood was behind the plot is no longer available — to look  us straight in the eye, breaking the Torah’s fourth wall, so to speak  — and confess what’s really going on and why, or to at least offer another version of the truth.

This is not too different from Zornberg’s unconscious theory. Because they both boil down to the fact that the Torah itself cannot say, maybe no longer knows, what caused the People to lose their spiritual way and then turn on neighbors and allies in an attempt to cope, make some sense of it.  But the Torah is still able to tell us in its stuttering way, full of missing bits and confusion, that the tale is maybe not as straightforward as it might sometimes be portrayed, that vengeance is not a simple matter with a clear beginning and end, that it’s not something that ends well…or even ends:

In the middle of his rant to the leaders for not killing enough, Moses is somehow back to a lecture on ritual purity after touching the dead. And we are not told at this point if his ranting instructions were carried out (and we know from later stories in Tanakh that there are plenty of Midianites still in the land).

A heavy tongue returns

It occurred to me late in preparing these remarks that perhaps the rambling and stuttering of this story is related to what Shelley Grossman described here about Moses a few weeks ago: his aging and use of an old playbook and how he no longer has his siblings at his side. Remember, too, that Moses tried to refuse the Exodus mission, back at the Burning Bush, by telling God he was “heavy-mouthed” and “heavy-tongued” (Alter’s words). At the time, God told Moses not to worry because Aaron could speak. But now, Aaron and Miriam are gone and we have, instead, Pinchas — Aaron’s grandson whom we first meet when he is in the middle of a violent act, committing a killing that we are later told is part of a covenant of peace.

So maybe what we witness here is a story that is moving forward under emerging leadership but related by a man who has reverted to heavy-tongue, reporting to us that his own demise will follow on the heels of vengeance on people he once knew as family and fellow monotheists. Maybe it’s a kind of last gift to Moses — and to us — that the old, heavy-mouthed stuttering voice comes through to warn us that no such tale can be told without stumbling and missing bits.

NOTES

Max David Ticktin (1922 – 2016)

There are many on-line obituaries and memorials to Max. My favorite is this one by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. And in the way of such things, I was carrying the Torah through the Micah congregation just a few days after Max’s funeral and, even though Max did not attend services at Micah would not have been there to touch me with his tzitzit, I found myself equal parts profoundly sad at the knowledge that we would all be missing his touch and deeply grateful for the myriad ways he had already touched so many of us.

BACK

The Torah Portion

The Torah portion Matot is comprised of Numbers 30:2 – 32:42. Temple Micah is following the schedule of readings used in Israel and, therefore, one week ahead of many congregations in the diaspora at this point in the calendar.
BACK

Thirty Cubits in the Tabernacle

The inside of the Tabernacle, the desert worship space of the Israelites, is 30 cubits long. (This is worked out from directions for various components, described in Exodus 26-27.) An inside covering is composed of ten panels of “twisted linen, and indigo and purple and crimson, with cherubim, designer’s work,” each measuring 28 cubits by 4 cubits (Alter’s translation; citation below). Eleven goat-hair panels of 30 cubits by 4 cubits create an additional covering over the whole construction. (Explicit instructions in Exodus 26:1 and 26:7).

The inside coverings are joined so “that the Tabernacle be one whole” (Exodus 26:6).

26:6) that the Tabernacle be one whole
This phrase leads Abraham ibn Ezra to muse over how unity in the greater world is constituted by an interlocking of constituent parts that become a transcendent whole, as in the unity of microcosm and macrocosm. One need not read this section homelitically, as he does, in order to see the power of summation of this particular phrase.
— Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. (NY: Norton, 2004)

Continue Reading