The blessings and curses that come with choseness…
An exploration of the meaning and development of The Chosen People in Genesis and in Rabbinic and Christian texts and traditions.
Listen to the madlik podcast:
The blessings and curses that come with choseness…
An exploration of the meaning and development of The Chosen People in Genesis and in Rabbinic and Christian texts and traditions.
Listen to the madlik podcast:
In a previous post Divine Birthers I, I explore the concept of miraculous birth and resurrection in Judaism. It’s ironic that such a heavy discussion is raised by the birth and life of a guy named Isaac … יִצְחָק which literally means to laugh and in context, means to laugh at God.
And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is any thing too hard for the LORD. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’ Genesis 18: 12-16
And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him and Sarah said: ‘God hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’ Genesis 21: 6-7
This past Rosh HaShanah, my Rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn asked why, Isaac, the “middle Father” of the three patriarchs was featured in the Torah readings of the High Holidays? The first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael after the birth of Isaac: Genesis 21: 9. Ironically, Ishmael is banished by Sarah because he exhibits the same trait as Isaac… he’s a jokester….
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which is admittedly not a laughing matter.
Even the Torah makes a connection between the Sacrifice of Isaac.. the Akeda and what lies before… the account of he Akeda begins with Genesis 22:1
And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’
Like any middle child, argued Wiederhorn, Isaac had a conflicted life and much to teach us…. ergo we read both of these troubling stories that revolve around him on the high holy days.
What connects Isaac and his jokester brother Ishmael is how these two brothers came to reconcile with each other, and forgive their father.
According to the the Talmudic sage Raba in Baba Batra 16b quoted by Wiederhorn, these two feuding brothers reunited at their father’s funeral and shiva.
Ishmael repented in the lifetime of his father. [We know this] because it says, And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him. (Genesis 25: 9) But perhaps the text arranges them in the order of their wisdom? — If that were so, then why in the verse, And Esau and Jacob his sons buried him (Genesis 35: 29) are they not arranged in the order of their wisdom? What we have to say is that the fact of the text placing Isaac first shows that Ishmael made way (‘made him lead’) for him, and from the fact that he made way for him we infer that he repented in Abraham’s lifetime. 
According to a conversation imagined by Rabbi Wiederhorn…. Ishmael was bitter and complained to Isaac that that their father had cruelly rejected and exiled him…. said Isaac “Dad rejected you… but he tried to kill me!”. It was this humor shared by these two victims of exile and persecution that brought them together.
But there’s more joking going on in this narrative. When in Genesis 26: 8 the Abimelech, king of the Philistines catches Isaac “sporting” with his wife Rebecca, many commentaries provide sexual innuendo…
And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.
I must say, I have always loved the Torah’s humor in “Isaac was sporting” “Yitchak Mitzahek” יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק but Wiederhorn makes the point that not only does the author of the Torah make us smile with this word play… but maybe, just maybe it was not gratuitous sex that was part of this screenplay … maybe for once we should take the text literally and Isaac was making his wife smile in a way that only one who is intimately connected can. Isaac, true to his name, used humor, charm and a gratuitous smile to navigate through the trials and tribulations of life. that was what Isaac was doing too…. making Rebeca smile in a way that showed the closeness of the relationship.
According to Wiederhorn’s sometimes we need to look on the bright side of life…
Writing this post in Israel, after a difficult few weeks of conflict over the Temple Mount and terror attacks with cars mowing down innocent victims waiting for a light rail, the message of Isaac could never be more timely… we … all parties.. the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar, need to smile more and make each other smile more. We share enough tragedy to smile in a way that only those sharing the same fate and suffering can. If we can’t smile together, we may never get out of the rut we’re in.
Wiederhorn was inspired by the commentary to Genesis 25:9 in the Etz Hayim Chumash: “Isaac and Ishmael are reunited at their father’s funeral, a sign that Ishmael changed his ways as he matured [BT BB 16b]. Although he could not have forgotten how his father had treated him and how his brother had supplanted him, he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father. Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father’s nearly killing him on Mount Moriah.
Might these reconciliations have occurred in Abraham’s lifetime and be the reason for the Torah’s describing him as “contented” in his old age (Gen. R. 38:12)? Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts? And can it not be a model for the descendents of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?”
Sanctuary: 1. A place of refuge, especially for political refugees 2. immunity from arrest
The Concise Oxford Dictionary
With the army of a victorious Henry VII bearing down on him, a terrified Francis Lovell made for the only place he knew he would be safe – a church.
It was 1485 and his master Richard III had just been killed on the battlefield at Bosworth and Francis had every reason to believe his head would be next.
But he made it in time to St John’s Abbey in Colchester where he invoked the ancient law of religious sanctuary. It made him untouchable.
Claiming sanctuary in a church to avoid being punished for a crime was abolished in England in 1623 but the idea persists to this day. (see)
The antecedence for refuge in a sanctuary hark back to Numbers 35: 9 –
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer that killeth any person through error may flee thither. And the cities shall be unto you for refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation for judgment.
The six cities of refuge were designated for all inhabitants regardless of citizenship “For the children of Israel, and for the stranger and for the settler among them,” and where designed to break the pre-existing rules of Blood Feuds whereby a relative of the murdered was required to redeem the blood גֹּאֵל הַדָּם of his relative by killing the murderer, even if the murder was accidental.
The City of Refuge is first and foremost the antidote to the negative aspects of clan and tribalism. The refuge cities עָרֵי מִקְלָט along with the monetization of lex talionis (eye for eye see Lev. 24:19 and Talmud Baba Kamma, 83b–84a) represented the Hebrew Bible’s frontal assault on the zero-sum mechanics of blood-for-blood honor killings.
Ironically, Israelis call a bomb shelter a Miklat מִקְלָט. The connection between the modern day bomb shelter and the Biblical city of refuge is profound. The modern day Miklat protects Israeli citizens from the attacks of terrorists who wish nothing positive, but only to take revenge for prior injustices and to redeem the blood of fellow clan members. In a very real sense, the Iron Dome Missile Defense system, the Miklat, and the security wall are all designed to end the cycle of violence.
When these same terrorist shoot rockets without sheltering their own citizens from the inevitable return fire, they are striving to escalate the blood feud, ditto for the use of their citizens as human shields.
The cinematic image we share of the fugitive finding refuge in a church shows how this legal institution of the City of Refuge survived in Church law and popular culture, but what is less well known, is how primary this message was to Muhammad’s message and early Islam.
According to Joseph Schacht, the celebrated Columbia professor of Arabic and Islam, Muhammad reformed the norms of retaliation with the introduction of blood-money “because of the main aim of the Prophet – [was] the dissolution of the ancient tribal organization and the creation of a community of believers in its stead.” [An Introduction to Islamic Law, Joseph Schacht, p 13-4)
See Quran Sura 4: 92
And never is it for a believer to kill a believer except by mistake. And whoever kills a believer by mistake – then the freeing of a believing slave and a compensation payment presented to the deceased’s family [is required] unless they give [up their right as] charity. But if the deceased was from a people at war with you and he was a believer – then [only] the freeing of a believing slave; and if he was from a people with whom you have a treaty – then a compensation payment presented to his family and the freeing of a believing slave. And whoever does not find [one or cannot afford to buy one] – then [instead], a fast for two months consecutively, [seeking] acceptance of repentance from Allah . And Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.
According to Schacht, Islam after Muhammad continued this evolution away from tribal revenge killings and toward the rule of law and restitution.
The Umayyads did not interfere with the working of retaliation as it had been regulated by the Koran, but they tried to prevent the recurrence of Arab tribal feuds which threatened the internal security of the state, and they assured the accountancy for payments of blood-money, which were effected in connexion with the payment of subventions. ibid. Schacht p. 24
Schacht, who was not Jewish, believed about Islam what many of his contemporary Jewish Scholars had concluded about Judaism, namely, that there was at one time a “living tradition” where ideas took on a life of their own and evolved forward, even if projected back to engender authenticity. (see Remembering Joseph Schacht (1902‑1969) by Jeanette Wakin) 
With regard to the subject at-hand, Schacht concludes that:
The considerable restriction of blood feuds was a great merit of Muhammad’s. According to Bedouin ideas, any member of the tribe of the killer, and even more than one, could be killed if homicide had occurred. Islam allows only the killer himself (or several killers for one slain), to be put to death, and only if he is fully responsible and has acted clearly with deliberate intent; Islamic law further recommends waiving retaliation. Ibid Schacht p 185
It’s a shame that, in the Islam we encounter today, the movement by the Prophet Muhammad and early local schools against tribalism and blood feuding was not permitted to develop further. It’s a shame that both Jews and Muslims do not have a miklat, a shelter, refuge and sanctuary to protect them from the evils of bloodletting and the cycle of violence that it drives.
In the meantime, the civilized world should honor and emulate the shelter that Israel provides it’s citizens as not only an acclimation of life but also as a concrete and practical strategy to break the cycle of violence and bloodletting.
 Writes Wakin: “Not surprisingly, scholars in the Muslim world in general are unable to accept Schacht’s discoveries or face their implications. … The understandable fear among modern Muslim scholars is that the great edifice of the religious law, and thus Islam itself, will collapse if it is shown to have been the product of human minds. Schacht’s findings can, of course, conceivably be put at the service of a liberalizing movement, but this has not yet been attempted.”
Previously, when Moses is confronted with a difficult question requiring a pragmatic solution he lets God do the heavy lifting. As the Children of Israel stand on the cusp of the Promised Land, Moses finds the moxy to craft the compromise.
Moses is approached by the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. These men are herders not farmers. They have noticed that the land on the East Bank of the Jordan River is more suitable for livestock. Following in the footsteps of Zelophehad’s daughters and Jethro before them, they approach Moses and the Elders. (Numbers 32)
The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spoke unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying: … the land which the LORD smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle.’ And they said: ‘If we have found favour in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession; bring us not over the Jordan.’
וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-גָד, וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן; וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְאֶל-נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר
הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה ה’ לִפְנֵי עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל–אֶרֶץ מִקְנֶה, הִוא; וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ, מִקְנֶה
וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִם-מָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ–יֻתַּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, לַאֲחֻזָּה: אַל-תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ, אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן
One can just picture Moses’ face dropping in disbelief and sadness. Here, the land of Israel had not even been possessed and already two of the twelve tribes want to modify and dilute the dream. The tribes of Reuben and Gad were the first post-Zionists, only they hadn’t even settled in Zion yet!
Moses’ anguish is deeper. The student of the Hebrew Bible will recognize that from the days of Cain and Abel, there has always been a biblical tension between the farmer and the herder. While both are necessary, it is an agricultural society, with laws of tithes and sabbatical years that fill the Hebrew law code for the new land. The slaughter of animals is relegated to the sacrificial cult. The farmer invests in the land and lives off the sweat of his brow; the herder takes from the land and moves on. The life of the nomad, the hunter and gatherer had served the people well in exile, but now that they were settling in the Promised Land, it would be sustainable agriculture which insured the future.
It was not just that these two tribes didn’t want to complete the journey, their chosen profession manifested a rejection of something deeper. Just as the word for Cain קַיִן is derived from the word possessions (see Genesis 4:1) so too does the word for cattle מִקְנֶה has a materialistic sense to it. Rashi picks up on the misplaced materialism of these two tribes projected in the text…
They approached him and said, “We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children. (Numbers 32:16)
וַיִּגְּשׁוּ אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ, גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה, וְעָרִים, לְטַפֵּנוּ
We shall build sheepfolds for our livestock here: They were more concerned about their possessions than about their sons and daughters, since they mentioned their livestock before [mentioning] their children. Moses said to them, “Not so! Treat the fundamental as a fundamental, and the matter of secondary importance as a matter of secondary importance. First ‘build cities for your children,’ and afterwards ‘enclosures for your sheep’” (verse 24) – [Mid. Tanchuma Mattoth 7]
נבנה למקננו פה –חסים היו על ממונם יותר מבניהם ובנותיהם, שהקדימו מקניהם לטפם. אמר להם משה לא כן עשו, העיקר עיקר והטפל טפל, בנו לכם תחלה ערים לטפכם ואחר כך גדרות לצאנכם
There is another element inherent in the request of these tribes that must have peeved Moses. The promise of the Promised Land was to put an end to the incessant wandering of the Hebrews. The Hebrews (עברים) were the descendants of people like Abraham and the wanderers in the desert, who had forged (passed over עבר) the river and come to settle in the land. These tribes, like Cain were choosing the life of the wanderer. they were asking permission not to cross the Jordan both physically and ideologically.
Moses barely hides his anger. He points out that these two tribes are setting a bad example and missing the whole point of the episode of the 10 scouts who were responsible for the 40-year delay in returning to the Land of Israel (Numbers 32: 7 – 13)
And wherefore will ye turn away the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the LORD hath given them? … Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. .. Surely none of the men that came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob; because they have not wholly followed Me; … And the LORD’S anger was kindled against Israel, and He made them wander to and fro in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the LORD, was consumed.
Writes Rashi (picking up the Cain motif):
He made them wander: He moved them about from place to place, as in נָע וָנָד “a wanderer and an exile” (Gen. 4:12).
Knowing Moses’ frustration and anger management issues, one would have expected him to lash out. And while he does engage in a vigorous debate with these non-settlers he resolves the issue with a grand compromise.
The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad agree to participate fully in the conquest and only once their brethren are settled will they return to their outpost on the East Bank of the Jordan. (Numbers 32: 18-19)
We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance.
For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan, and forward, because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side of the Jordan eastward
לֹא נָשׁוּב, אֶל-בָּתֵּינוּ–עַד, הִתְנַחֵל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אִישׁ, נַחֲלָתוֹ
כִּי לֹא נִנְחַל אִתָּם, מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וָהָלְאָה: כִּי בָאָה נַחֲלָתֵנוּ אֵלֵינוּ, מֵעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן מִזְרָחָה
In a sense, the permission by Moses for these outlier tribes to settle on the East Bank of the Jordan, was a testament to his maturation and growth as a leader and his understanding that ideologies need to be compromised in order to achieve dreams.
Three thousand years later when Ben Gurion and the mainstream Zionists were given the choice of a partitioned promised land they too accepted the compromise. Ironically, those rejectionists let by Ze’ev Jabotinsky who rejected the Partition Plan used Reuben and Gad’s East Bank settlement as the basis for an argument against compromise and for a Greater Israel.
The East of the Jordan (Hebrew: שמאל הירדן) is a poem written by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader, a song that became one of the most known leading songs of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar. The song includes four Stanzas. Each stanza ends with the following line which is the main political message and theme of the poem:
Two Banks has the Jordan
This is ours and, that is as well.
The main theme of the song also influenced other Zionists’ poems, and its main theme appears also in Raise Up the Barricades, by Michael Eshbal, also one of the Betar youth movement’s well known poems, which says of the Jewish state: “To establish the state on both sides of the Jordan”.
(see Wikipedia The East Bank of the Jordan) and see note below with complete lyrics and background of the heated debate between Jabotinsky; the uncompromising revisionist, and Weizman; the pragmatist. 
The rift between these two groups culminated in the Altalena Affair where in 1948, Ben Gurion, the heir to Weizman and the leader of the month-old State of Israel squared off against Menachem Begin, the heir to Jabotinsky and head of the now illegal paramilitary group; the Irgun. To make a long story, short, Ben Gurion ordered the sinking of the Altalena. Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed and more than 200 were arrested. Begin never forgave Ben Gurion, but in 1979, it was Begin who made the ultimate compromise in returning Sinai to Egypt.
The Altalena was our Hamas moment. The Palestinians have absorbed many ideas, concepts from the Zionists. The Palestinians use words like “right of return” and “diaspora” and also have adopted a nationalistic desire for a state similar to the Zionists. It is time that they also learn to compromise their ideals and unconditionally reject rogue players and ideologically driven militarists. There was no room for the Irgun once the State of Israel was established, and there is no room for non-state players like Hamas if the Palestinians are to have their own state.
Today, as once again Israel is forced to wage war with Palestinian rejectionist and terrorist groups, we need to remember and remind the world not only regarding the sacrifices that we have made, but also the equally courageous compromises that we and our most idealistic leaders have made.
We will have peace with our neighbors not only “when they love their children more that they hate us” (Golda Meir), but also when they learn, that in order to deserve a Promised Land, you need to accept a Compromised Land…
In 1922, in an effort to appease Abdullah, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill excluded 77% of Palestine from all legal stipulations dealing with Hebrew aspirations. The first in a series of four White Papers was issued, significantly limiting Jewish immigration and severely truncating the Israeli homeland’s borders. A Hashemite Arab kingdom was consequently established in the majority of Palestine. This artificial state came to be known as Trans-Jordan. Thus the Jews were left with only 23% of what the Balfour Declaration and League of Nations had stipulated.
During Jabotinsky’s stay in the United States, he received news of Britain’s perfidious White Paper. While the more pragmatic Zionist leaders, led by Chaim Weitzman, were willing to accept whatever borders they could receive, Jabotinsky contested the injustice on principle and even composed a song championing Israel’s claim to both banks of the Jordan River.
As a bridge is held up by a pillar
As a man is kept erect by his spine
So the Jordan, the holy Jordan
Is the backbone of my Israel.
Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.
Though my country may be poor and small
It is mine from head to foot.
Stretching from the sea to the desert
And the Jordan, the Jordan in the middle.
Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.
From the wealth of our land there shall prosper
The Arab, the Christian, and the Jew,
For our flag is a pure and just one
It will illuminate both sides of my Jordan.
Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.
My two hands I have dedicated to the homeland,
My two hands to sword and shield.
Let my right hand whither
If I forget the East Bank of the Jordan.
Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.
In the wake of Zionism’s meek response to Churchill’s treacherous White Paper, Jabotinsky condemned what he called the “erosion of Zionist demands” – the leadership’s apprehension to clearly state that the goal of the Zionist Movement is a sovereign Hebrew state. He argued that Zionism no longer demanded but instead adopted the exile attitude of “shtadlanut” – trying to curry favor in gentile eyes. The issue of Trans-Jordan and the evolutionary leadership’s inability to state clear Zionist goals became issues of heated discussion within the Movement, leading to Jabotinsky’s resignation from the World Zionist Executive. His resignation, however, did not stem from disillusionment with the Zionist ideal, but rather with the officials at the helm. It occurred to Jabotinsky that his generation was not ready for the revolutionary character of Herzlian Zionism. A movement had to be born that would create a new type of Jew, free from the idiosyncrasies and inferiority complex of the exile – like the champions featured throughout the Hebrew Bible. By bringing about a revolution in values and self image, Jabotinsky hoped to revive the ancient spirit of the proud Israeli hero. Along with a number of veterans from the Zionist Movement, he established the Union of Zionist-Revisionists (Hatzohar) which called for the immediate establishment of a Hebrew state with an Israeli majority on both sides of the Jordan. (see: Zionist Freedom Alliance)
Revisionist Zionism came into being as a direct challenge to the policies of Chaim Weitzman. Two diametrically opposed ideologies were now battling for commandjabotinsky over the Zionist Movement. Jabotinsky advocated a forthright approach of presenting fundamental Zionist aims explicitly. He was against the propounding of half truths, whether to the Hebrew masses or to the gentile nations. Like Herzl before him, Jabotinsky rejected “muted Zionism” and refused to “turn the Zionist Movement into a fraternity of whispering, conspiratorial smugglers”. Opposing him, Weitzman advocated a cautious struggle and the application of “one step at a time” tactics. But Jabotinsky demanded a return to Herzlian Political Zionism with stated goals set forth in a charter.
Apologetics is the bastard child of biblical interpretation and is practiced primarily under duress. Apologetics is used, not to determine the meaning of the text but simply to defend a sacred text from detractors. I have always belittled this approach. I prefer to disagree and if necessary negate a biblical injunction then twist it to suite my modern palate. I believe that the Rabbis did this when they declared that “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son” [In the Biblical sense, to be executed Sanhedrin 71a] and when they virtually nullified the prohibition to take interest ribbit (ריבית) on a loan.
But in a world where there are fundamentalists who take a text at it’s face value and give it power to affect our shared world, it becomes necessary to address even the most archaic rules and practices preserved in scripture. And …. unless we are willing to censor the public reading of these texts in our places of worship, don’t we all have to become de facto apologists to make these texts acceptable for our children and grandchildren?
Which brings me to the subject of Israel’s biblical borders and apparent prescription for forced transfer of the resident population…. and how I struggle with it’s meaning and question its validity.
The first mention of what could be taken as an “ethnic cleansing” provision in the Hebrew Bible is found in Parshat Mishpatim, and appears not as a command, but a Divine promise (let the apologetics commence….)
See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and His blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.
And I will set thy border from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness unto the River; for I will deliver the inhabitants (alt. rulers) of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.
וְשַׁתִּי אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ, מִיַּם-סוּף וְעַד-יָם פְּלִשְׁתִּים, וּמִמִּדְבָּר, עַד-הַנָּהָר: כִּי אֶתֵּן בְּיֶדְכֶם, אֵת יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ, וְגֵרַשְׁתָּמוֹ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.
Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods.
Do not let them dwell (alt. rule) in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.
לֹא יֵשְׁבוּ בְּאַרְצְךָ, פֶּן-יַחֲטִיאוּ אֹתְךָ לִי: כִּי תַעֲבֹד אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְךָ לְמוֹקֵשׁ (Exodus 23: 20-33)
The emphasis, in my view, is not on extermination or forced relocation of these peoples, but on not following their ways, of not making covenants with their rulers and on the positive side of spreading the Hebrew revolution. The conflict is not with the people that inhabit the land, but with the “petty monarchy and social stratification” that block the revolution. One scholar even suggests that “live in your land” Yoshev BeArtzeha, means not those who inhabit, but rather those who “rule”. Those who sit on the throne and seat of power… the “powers that be”. (Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE, by Norman Gottwald, pp 530-534)
So next time your in Synagogue and they return the Torah to the ark and you sing Psalm 29 remember that we are not celbrating the God sat during the flood…. but that He ruled and that He will rule forever…
The LORD sat enthroned at the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth as King for ever. Psalms 29:10
יְהוָה, לַמַּבּוּל יָשָׁב; וַיֵּשֶׁב יְהוָה, מֶלֶךְ לְעוֹלָם.
And next time you hear someone claim that there is a biblical injunction to relocate inhabitants (yoshvei ha’aretz) in the Land of Israel suggest that the verse is referring to relocating autocratic rulers, not populations. (cf. Deuteronomy 7:24 where “kings into your hand” malkehem beyadeka is used in place of yoshvei ha’aretz) *
Ultimately, the Hebrew rebellion/revolution in Canaan is only a partial success; neither God nor the Hebrew nation overcome the resident cults and petty politics. Throughout the period of the Judges and Old Testament Prophets, the recurring problem is not of limited land conquest and failure to achieve racial purity, but of a failed rebellion against the mores and practices of the pagan religions and existing social structure. Just as the Hebrews compromise and ask Samuel for a an autocratic King; such as all the other nations have, so too, they continue to assimilate the pagan practices and social stratification of the indigenous culture. Yehezkel Kaufman points out that by the end of Joshua’s life (Joshua13:1-6) “a new conception makes its appearance: “the remaining country”… a region that does not exist in the Land of Canaan of the Pentateuch.
So the LORD left those nations, without driving them out hastily; neither delivered He them into the hand of Joshua. Now these are the nations which the LORD left, to prove [test] Israel by them, even as many as had not known all the wars of Canaan; (Joshua 2:23 – 3:1)
וַיַּנַּח יְהוָה אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה, לְבִלְתִּי הוֹרִישָׁם מַהֵר; וְלֹא נְתָנָם, בְּיַד-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ
וְאֵלֶּה הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִנִּיחַ יְהוָה, לְנַסּוֹת בָּם אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ, אֵת כָּל-מִלְחֲמוֹת כְּנָעַן
In “the remaining country” a new people is settled: the later Philistines…. Josh 23 contains the first mention of the conception of “the remaining peoples”. Here we meet, for the first time, the warning that, if the Israelites enter into relations with these remaining peoples, Jahweh will no longer (fulfill his promise to) expel them. By the time of the judges (Judges 2:11 – 3:6) the hope of completing the Conquest is entirely abandoned.” (The Biblical Account of the Conquest of Canaan, Yehezkel Kaufman, Magnes Press, Hebrew University 1953 pp 92-93 in chapter entitled “The Problem of the Complete Conquest”)
If we look back at the original Exodus 23 texts, we can’t help but notice the hesitation. At the time the text was written it is already clear that the roll-out did not go well and that a racially pure Greater Israel would (possibly, should) never be accomplished. As Kaufman writes, a Greater Israel would always be more ideal than real. Maybe the biblical order is placating a group of settlers who want it all. The text suggests patience and possibly hope that they will grow accustomed to what is achievable and ultimately desirable… “But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you…” (for conquest-by- slow stages motif cf. Deuteronomy 7:22). At the end of the day, Greater Israel is a promise, not a command… and in Joshua, the promise morphs into a test, for which like the SAT, a perfect score is unattainable.
Let’s keep in mind that for all the rantings of the prophets against the children of Israel not achieving their goals, never are they criticized for not clearing the land of aliens. Never is the fall of the first and second Jewish Commonwealth blamed on a failure to expand the territory. The ultimate failure of the state is always blamed on how the Jews acted among themselves and within their borders, not for not expanding those borders.
Fast-forward to Maimonides’ code where the promise and law against the Seven Nations has become mute “Their memory has long since perished.” (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:4) As Maimonides writes: “War, whether a war of choice (milchemet hareshut) or a war of mitzvah, should not be waged against anybody until he is offered the opportunity of peace as [Deuteronomy 20:10] states: “when you approach a city to wage war against it, you must propose a peaceful settlement.” (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1)
My read of the Torah is clear… The struggle to conquer and defeat the indigenous population in the Promised Land was always an ideological and political struggle. This struggle of cultures is the stuff that constitutes the majority of the rantings of the Hebrew Prophets. It was the loss of this cultural struggle between The God of Israel and the local idolatry that is blamed for the ultimate destruction. Any physical warfare in the conquest of the land is with the (yshvei HaAretz) rulers. The ultimate takeaway is that we need to make peace so that we can focus on our own growth and culture. This is the ultimate test give peace a chance and acknowledge that there is strong Biblical and historical precedent for a “remaining country” and a “remaining people”… otherwise known as a two state solution.
* As Gottwald writes: “If yashav is understood as “rule” in these contexts, the heavy emphasis on avoidance of ties with the Canaanites takes on a predominantly political, rather than ethnic, cast. Even the animus against Canaanite gods becomes an animus against the gods of the Canaanite rulers who stand in systematic oppostion to Yahweh, the God of the egalitarian Israelite.” ibid page 532
** see also:
“I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
[Tevye prior to deportation from Anatevka, Fiddler On the Roof]
If nothing else, the Genesis narrative is one of the choices by God of His Chosen emissaries and the choices of these chosen-few of their successors. Disappointed in his original progenitors; Adam and Noah, God chooses Abraham (“father of many nations”) who picks Isaac over his older brother Ishmael, and Isaac who then picks Jacob over his older brother Esau.
As do many commentaries, I have detected a clear biblical bias (in these choices) against the oldest – entitled son and for the outlier, the rejected, the underdog, the downcast etc. From Genesis and beyond there is clear rejection of the entitled class, its caste system and primogeniture. From Abraham to King David there is a straight, albeit crooked line of runts, rejects, sordid pasts and questionable births that include the suspect senior-citizen birth of Isaac, Judah and the Harlot; Tamar, not to mention the line from Lot and his incestual union with his daughter and the resulting line from Moab to Ruth to David.
But the clear dichotomy between The Entitled vs The Chosen begins to break down, like all clean models, with Joseph.
Joseph is a transitional figure, not quite a patriarch (micro) and therefore not quite a paradigmatic structural symbol for the later narrative of the Jewish people, and not quite part and parcel of the narrative of the Jewish people (macro). Is the story of Joseph’s decent to Egypt a prototype of the later sojourn in Egypt of the Israelites, or is Joseph’s story the actual beginning of the Exodus narrative itself? It’s not quite clear.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours.
4 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
8 And his brethren said to him: ‘Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. (Genesis 37)
10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said unto him: ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?’
11 And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind.
20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’
21 And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’
26 And Judah said unto his brethren: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?
27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him.
I’m sure that if we were to ask Joseph sometime between when he was thrown into the pit in Shechem and when he was thrown into jail in Egypt…” So Joseph; how’s this favorite-chosen son thing working for you?” He might have responded along the lines of Tevye … Can’t you choose someone else for a change?
Any parent will read the Joseph story sympathetically… favoritism is a recipe for disaster in general but especially in familial relationships and amongst siblings.
If Abraham chose Isaac for the birthright, he still cared deeply for Ishmael and exiled him only at Sarah and God’s insistence. Isaac was tricked into giving the birthright to Jacob but explicitly loved Esau more. Even if they did not receive the birthright, both Ishmael and Esau received their own blessings and presumably knew that their father loved them a lot, if not as much or even more than their brother. It is only with Joseph that Choseness as favoritism appears or at least appears with such vengeance.
So how did this all work out for Joseph both in his life in the biblical narrative and in his after-life in the psyche of the Jewish People?
Besides his obvious talent as a dream-reader, forecaster and treasury tsar (all good Jewish professions) Joseph and his line don’t play a featured role in Jewish folklore. In fact, mixed into the early Joseph story (above) we see the dynamic of Chosen/entitled playing out with more historical implications between Reuven (Jacobs’s first born with Leah) and Judah (the fourth born of Leah). Reading the text (above) it is clearl that there are two accounts regarding which brother plays the responsible and leadership role in saving Joseph, both accounts were preserved in the text, but it is Judah (not Reuven) who prevails and it is Judah whose little escapade with the ‘harlot” Tamar interrupts the previously scheduled Joseph story. It is Judah, and neither Reuven nor Joseph, who gives birth to the messianic line. Reuven loses because he represents the entitled first born. Joseph loses for reasons I struggle with below.
So the mainstream narrative of Chosen-through-covenant taking precedence of entitled-by-birth is preserved with Judah.
The choseness of Judah is informed by obligation and responsibility as demonstrated in both Judah’s saving the brother he hates and admitting his guilt when confronted by Tamar. It is a choseness not informed by purity but to the contrary by struggle… physical struggle and many times a struggle with ambiguity.
As Nathaniel Deutsch writes in New American Haggadah:
“Unlike salvation, chosenness is a question, not an answer; the beginning of a journey, not it’s end. It will not take place in the future and, therefore, we do not hope or pray for it. Instead, like the Exodus from Egypt, being chosen is something that has happened to us already, something that we must remember and, in so doing, make present in every generation. As a modern people, we are used to choosing; being chosen is much more difficult, at least for many of us. Some of us do not accept it at all.
We might even say that wrestling with being chosen, like Jacob wrestling with God – or was it with himself? – is Jewishness itself.”
note: Judah is known for succumbing to temptation with Tamar and struggling with the aftermath. Joseph is known for overcoming temptation with Potiphar’s wife … and the physical and possible self-righteous narcissism that follows…. Joseph the Tzadik (pure).
So if the mainstream Chosenness of the Judah line ended up with the universalist Light-unto-the-Nations strain of Davidic Messianism including lambs lying down with lions and swords beat into plowshares… where did the alternative Joseph stream lead? Where did Choseness based not on responsibility and struggle but on favoritism lead?
Well, Joseph died in Egypt and, as promised, his bones where taken by Moses and then Joshua into the promised land where (according to some authorities) were buried in a tomb aptly named Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem… modern day Nablus. If you’re up on turf-wars in the Much Too Promised Land, you will know that since its conquest in 1967, the tomb of Joseph has been a flash-point between religious Zionists and Palestinian Arabs.
What you may not know, is that there is a tradition of two messiahs in Judaism. The Messiah ben (son of) David and the Messiah ben Joseph.
Messiah ben Joseph will act as a precursor to Messiah ben David and will prepare the world for the coming of the final redeemer. The main function of him will be of political and military nature. Messiah, son of Joseph shall wage war against the evil forces and he will die in combat with the enemies of God and Israel. Messiah ben Joseph will be killed, this is described in the prophecy of Zechariah “they shall mourn him as one mourns for an only child.” (Zechariah 12:10). After his death there will be a period of great calamities which shall be the final test for Israel. After this, Messiah ben David shall come, avenge his death, resurrect him and all the dead, and usher in the Messianic era of everlasting universal peace. [Messiah ben Joseph – Wikipedia]
Is there a connection between the militancy of the Messiah of Joseph and the affinity of Religious Zionists for the Tomb of Joseph? One religious Zionist Rabbi wrote after a group of Palestinian Arabs desecrated the tomb:
So, how fitting it is at this late stage of history, while the Jewish people seem to be grappling for ground on so many fronts, that Joseph’s Tomb was decimated. I hope it is a good sign, for they know not upon which holy ground they tread, nor what powers of redemption they have unleashed. Perhaps the spirit of Messiah Ben Joseph?
What is the connection between the biblical Joseph the chosen as favorite and the tradition of the militant Messiah Ben Joseph is harder to conjure.
All I know, as a father, a brother, a son and as a student of history…. Favoritism is a recipe for disaster.
On a recent bike ride through the Negev I was told that the security wall in the West Bank and the new border fence in Sinai are disrupting the Bedouin’s way of life and robbing them of their primary source of income ….. stealing cars!
It’s hard to mouth the word “steal” without taking a moral high-tone, but the truth is that “stealing” is and always has been an acceptable way of re-distributing wealth, property and territory… or even disrupting the status quo (as evidenced by Abbie Hoffman’s published work: “Steal this Book“).
In a famous Midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zorah 2b and Sifri to Deutoronomy 33:2) God offers the Torah to different nations before offering it to Israel. One nation, when asked what was written in that Torah “passed” upon learning that stealing was forbidden…. after all how could they possibly make a living?
The thing about stealing is that most societies believe that stealing is wrong; the gating question is stealing from whom? While social units such as a families, tribes or nations that live off of plundering don’t sanction stealing within their respective social units, stealing from outsiders however is accepted. What is strange about the Sinai Midrash is that it would imply that the stealing prohibited by the Bible is stealing from outsiders, but biblical and legal (halachic) authorities limit most biblical social obligations and mores to within the tribe (“your fellow” rayayhu) [i.e. it is forbidden to steal or deceive a non-Jew not because of a specific prohibition, but because to the resulting desecration of God’s name chillul Hashem) …. so this Midrash is a proof-text to the contrary…. other nations passed on the Torah because it forbade stealing from outside of the tribe, but not the Jews.
It is clear from the biblical script in Genesis 27 that Jacob is in-fact stealing his brother’s blessing and tricking his father (a variety of theft; genevat da’at) . This is not an oversight but is in-fact the narrative that the myth maker meant to create. By stealing the birthright, Jacob establishes his street creds or as they say in Israel, he proves that he’s not a “freier” (a sucker)…. But the birthright is still stolen.
The earlier story of a sale of the birthright (Genesis 25: 29-34) is duly recorded but not referenced before or after the trickery… or of more significance… it is not referenced when the two brothers reconcile many years later.
So we are left with two conflicting accounts of the transfer of the patrimony; a questionable sale by minors for a bowl of red lentils and a cunning theft.
There is no attempt to reconcile the two narratives nor final justification of the transfer of the birthright to Jacob. The message is clear.
Ultimately the tension in the story of Jacob and Esau gets resolved not by a legal brief nor an apology and commensurate reparations but by each brother/nation finding their own identity and niche within the land of the possible.
Golda Meir once said that there will be peace when our enemies love their children more than they hate us. In a corollary to that the Bible, at the resolution of the stealing of the birthright narrative, suggests that there will be peace when each party forgets its own version of history, law and narrative and focuses on building the best possible present given what is possible.
With Hamas firing rockets at Jerusalem that are landing near Palestinian villages and using it’s own women and children as human shields, we have an enemy that seems to hold the lives of it’s own children in the same disregard as that of their enemy. We have an enemy that is blinded by ideology and its own narrative and has no regard for building a better present…. we seem to be very far away indeed from that day of reconciliation.
In the Middle East we spend a lot of time discussing borders, justifying land claims, reciting prior agreements and defining people as they relate to land… immigrants, refugees, occupiers, settlers, pilgrims etc.
It’s worth remembering that ultimately, none of us can own the land. Agreements regarding the land don’t last forever. The plot of land our house is built on, the land defined by the borders of our country, mother earth itself, do not belong to us. If they belong, they belong to a higher authority.
And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.
And in all the land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land. (Leviticus 25: 23-24)
Baruch A. Levine writes in his commentary to Leviticus:
The God of Israel, to whom all land ultimately belongs, has granted the Land of Israel to His people, Israel, as an everlasting ‘ahuzzah, “holding.” In so doing, he has imposed on them certain conditions of tenure. Foremost among these is denial of the right to alienate land through its permanent conveyance to a purchaser – a right that is usually considered an intrinsic element of ownership. (page 270)
In the seven year cycle of shemita, all land is to be released to its original holder (ahaz), not to its original owner. Man cannot be an owner (or what in the Caribbean island of Anguilla they call a native: A belonger). No, we are all strangers in a strange land; we are all settlers.
The term “an everlasting ‘ahuzzah, “everlasting holding.” is really a contradiction in terms. “Everlasting” is forever and not contingent on events or time, and “ahuz” means to physically hold something. The first piece of Talmud most of us study is Tractate Baba Metziah, and is about two guys, each holding the same (sacred?) talit and both claiming it as theirs. “Shenaiyim ohazim betalit” Holding something is not owning it…. (btw they have to split the talit…)
Pharoah’s father’s name was Adikam Ahuz. In Egyptian, according to the Sefer HaYashar, Ahuz means short… and according to this tradition, Pharaoh’s father was not only physically short, he also reigned for only 4 years. Holding is temporal.
Just as an everlasting ahuza is a convenient contradiction (Divine Ruse/kindness – Arabic talattuf) .. which retains the temporary nature of possessing as opposed to owning God’s Land, but also provides a sense of entitlement to our homeland.
So too when it comes to the Biblical idea of an agreement or covenant. The concept of an everlasting covenant (e.g. brit olam – Genesis 9; 16) is Orwellian DoubleThink. A covenant is conditional on both parties keeping their side of the deal, needs to be renewed and can by defenition, be broken. Everlasting implies an unconditional commitment. In the early days of the emergence of the revolutionary idea that God and the Jewish People had entered into a covenantal relationship, the contingent aspect of the pact was emphasized. As the Jewish People accepted a monarchy, settled in their land and experienced their first exile in Babylon, the concept of an eternal covenant emerged. To the point, that when the Bible was translated into Greek (The Septuagint), the Hebrew word for covenant (Brit) was translated primarily as an inheritance, patrimony, gift… testament. (see A Greek-English Lexicon by H. G. Liddell and R. Scott)
The term New Testament is a translation of the Hebrew Brit hadasha. So, similar to the fossilization of ahuza-possession, covenant also lost its tenuous, temporal and historically conditional nature and became a static patrimony. The evolution of covenant from a historically contingent and dynamic relationship to a static fact of existense and law of nature is seen in the post-exilic prophet Jeremiah, and latter echoed by Saul (aka Paul) of Tarshish in the New Testament.
30 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah;
31 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, saith the LORD.
32 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
(see: Covenant – The History of a Biblical Idea Delbert Hillers chapter 7 The old age of an idea, especially p. 167)
So “holding” is by definition temporary. Resolving the age-old question: “buy or rent” the Bible seems to say: You can only rent… but you can have an everlasting lease.
So it remains until today. Anyone who has purchased real estate in Israel, knows that Israel is still governed by Ottoman Real Estate law, and while the price you pay certainly feels like you’re buying the property and no rent is collected… what you really are purchasing is a 99 year land lease… whose renewal will not be unreasonably withheld.
It’s a paradigm shift that is difficult for the Western mind: “Many Europeans and Americans do not understand this arrangement. People who came from legal systems where land ownership is a fundamental right, do not understand leasing.”… but this arrangement is natural in the Middle East and as shown in Leviticus 25; natural to the Bible. Only God can own, man is just a tenant.
Here’s the first comment by Rashi to the Torah:
Genesis 1.1 In the beginning Rabbis Isaac said: It was not necessary to begin the Torah, [whose main object is to teach commandments, mitzvoth, with this verse] but from “This month shall be unto you” [the beginning of months] (Exodus 12:2) since this is the first mitzvah [commandment] that Israel was commanded [to observe]. And what is the reason that it begins with Genesis? Because of [the verse] “The power of his works, He hath declared to his people in giving them the heritage of the nations (Psalms 111: 6) For if the nations of the world should say to Israel: “You are robbers, because you have seized by force the lands of the seven nations” [of Canaan], they [Israel] could say to them “The entire world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, He created it and gave it to whomever it was right in his eyes, Of His own will He gave it to them and His own will He took it from them and gave it to us.” (Yalkut, Exodus 12.2).
Clearly Rashi’s primary point is that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, and I will not argue otherwise, but I find his argument nonetheless; intriguing. The land of Israel does not belong to the Jews because they were the original occupants. To the contrary, it’s as if Rashi, and by extension, the Torah is going out of it’s way here and in Lekh-Lekha, to flaunt the fact that Abraham and his decedents, came from another land and were settlers. We Jews are not natives or belongers when it comes to the land of Israel. It is not a matter of fate or destiny that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, it is not written into the fabric of the universe…. it is a matter of historical contingency. God gave the land to the Jews to settle…. ” for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.”
Which brings us to Heter Mechira, a fascinating piece of halachic trivia – In the modern era, as Jews started to return to the land of Israel, the struggling farmers trying against all odds to eke out a marginal existence were confronted with the biblical law of shemita.. the requirement to let the land lie fallow every 7 years. In 1888 a bunch of the most esteemed European rabbis (and the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa) came up with an innovative idea which has become known as the heter mechira (literally: permission to sell). They proposed, that just as on Passover we sell our Hametz to a non-Jew, for the Sabattical year of rest, the entire land of Israel may be sold to a gentile, so that the Jews could work the land. …By the time the next shmita cycle came around in 1895-1896, the rabbinic authorities had joined a united front permitting the sale of the land for that sabbatical year. The rabbis concluded that reality dictated a need for such action because the people could not observe the laws of shmita. In the years of 1910 and 1911, Rav Kook allowed for the sale of the land as well, reaffirming that although it was not ideal, it served an important purpose. …In the years that followed, the decision to sell the land was reevaluated before the arrival of each shmita cycle. Once the State of Israel was established, the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate) accepted the sale of the land every year until as recently as 2007-2008. (See Whose Land is it Anyway? By: Nava Billet published in the Yeshiva University Student Newspaper). I’d love to know which gentile “owned” the land of Israel during these years… and what would have happened if he had decided not to sell it back! But all kidding aside, the heter mechira is intriguing because it creates a precedent in which the land of Israel is “temporarily” transferred to a non-Jew…… It is a legal fiction which achieves a goal of compromise with the requirements of reality while still adhering to the Torah.
I am hoping that I will be forgiven for citing another Middle Eastern concept which provides a temporary accommodation to reality. It is a Muslim concept which has recently been made a hot button and debated and exploited by both sides of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. It is the concept of Hudna or temporary truce. I cite it, not to enter into the fray of Middle Eastern dialectic, but only for the purposes of my exploration of alternatives to our Western conceptions of permanent ownership, patrimony and permanent agreements/covenants.
The concept of “hudna” is one in which the time factor is diluted. The meaning of the word “hudna” is a ceasefire, a break, or a rest. In Arab-Islamic tradition, the hudna is permissible for the sake of conducting negotiations between rivals (Reut Institute, http://reut-institute.org/en/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=287 ). It follows that the hudna is temporary in essence and, as been pointed out by supporters of Israel, can even serve the purpose of reinforcing fighting positions and re-arming. Furthermore, the word hudna does not suggest any preparedness to solve the problem or any commitment not to violate the ceasefire…. The understanding of hudna draws from the precedent of the Treaty of Hudeibiya signed between the Prophet Mohamed and members of the Tribe of Quraish in the year 628 (see Barriers to Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Editor: Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov p.279)
It may come as a surprise, that in signing the peace agreement with Israel in 1978, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president quoted a religious order based on the Treaty of Hudaybiya (see Guy Bechor, Ha’aretz, 5/24/94 see not 8 in Reut Institute – Hudna)…
It seems to me that if we accept the fact that we are all just settlers… even if our settling is everlasting (i.e. an “everlasting ahuza”) and if we believe that our covenants are historically contingent even if they too can be eternal, and if we can pay top dollar for real estate even if we only get a 99 year lease, then when it comes to negotiating with our enemies, or finding an accommodation with another people who also claim our “much too promised land”, then maybe we can acknowledge that Western concepts and categories are not helpful here. Maybe we should explore our shared Middle Eastern traditions, which permit accommodation with reality and the enemy, without necessarily abdicating our most cherished personal and national aspirations…. and without losing face. It’s just a thought.. but if we are all just strangers and settlers, maybe, just maybe we can get along .. if not forever, then for a very long while…..
1 Observe the Spring month and keep the Passover unto the LORD thy God; for in the Spring month the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night….
3 Thou shalt eat no leavened bread (חָמֵץ) on it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened (מַצּוֹת) bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for in haste didst thou come forth out of the land of Egypt; that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.
4 And there shall be no leaven (שְׂאֹר) seen with thee in all they borders seven days; … (Deuteronomy 16: 1 – 4)
To me… especially during this historic Arab Spring, I am struck by how closely tied Spring (Aviv) and Revolution (Exodus) are in the Bible. The ancient symbol that most profoundly ties these two ideas together is not so much Matzo.. a uniquely Jewish foodstuff, as it is hametz and the annual purge and abstinence from all things leavened (חָמֵץ andשְׂאֹר).
It turns out that leavened (unlike matzo) is a symbol which was part of the vernacular of the ancient world and whose significance was readily understood not only within Judaism, but also Christianity and Arab – indo-Iranian groups in the ancient near east.
We first find Leavened in the Bible in Leviticus 2: 11:
11 No meal-offering, which ye shall bring unto the LORD, shall be made with leaven; for ye shall make no leaven, nor any honey, smoke as an offering made by fire unto the LORD.
In his scholarly commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom writes regarding leavened . . . leaven. hames . . . se’or.:
The difference between the two is that se’or leavens the dough and the leavened dough is called hiimes” (Yahel ‘Or). … Similarly, Akk. emesu ‘be sour’ and emsu ‘sour’ (adi.) are used in connection with wine, vinegar, beer, fruit, or leavened bread, in other words, with foods that have fermented and, in the case of bread, to which leaven has been added. Fermentation is equivalent to decay and corruption and for this reason is prohibited on the altar.
“Leaven in the dough” is a common rabbinic metaphor for man’s evil propensities (e.g., Babylonian Talmud Berachot
“Sovereign of the Universe, it is well known to You that it is our will to do Your will. Who prevents us from doing so? The leavening agent in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and our subservience to the nations. May it be Your will to save us from these so that we can return to fulfilling Your commandments wholeheartedly.” Prayer of Rabbi Alexandrai
The New Testament mentions “the leaven of malice and wickedness”
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth. [Corinthians 5:8]
and “the leaven of the Pharisees,” which is “hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1; d. Mark 8:15).
This view is shared by the ancients:
“Leaven itself comes from corruption, and corrupts the dough with which it is mixed . . . and in general, fermentation seems to be a kind of putrefaction” (Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 109). Plutarch records that the Roman high priest (Flamen Dialis) was forbidden even to touch leaven (ibid.). To be sure, all of the above-cited references stem from late antiquity (Christian, rabbinic, and Hellenistic sources), but they undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation:’ deterioration, and death and, hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life. [pp 188-9 Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Bible, Vol. 3, Jacob Milgrom]
Listen to what Philo of Alexandria (representing the Jewish Hellenistics) wrote:
Leaven is forbidden because of the rising which it produces. Here again we have a symbol of the truth, that none as he approaches the altar should be uplifted or puffed up by arrogance; rather gazing on the greatness of God, let him gain a perception of the weakness which belongs to the creature, even though he may be superior to others in prosperity; and having been thus led to the reasonable conclusion, let him reduce the overweening exaltation of his pride by laying low that pestilent enemy, conceit. …. For naked you came into the world, worthy sir, and naked will you again depart, and the span of time between your birth and death is a loan to you from God. During this span what can be meet for you to do but to study fellow-feeling and goodwill and equity and humanity and what else belongs to virtue, and to cast away the inequitable, unrighteous and unforgiving viciousness which turns man, naturally the most civilized of creatures, into a wild and ferocious animal! (Philo,The Special Laws, Book I, 293-295 quoted in The Passover Anthology, Philip Goodman).
My guess is that if someone in 1st – 3rd Century CE had asked a Jew, a Hellenist, an early Christian or even a local pagan whether he had gotten rid of his leaven… the respondent may have hesitated and wondered whether the subject of conversation was old pita in his kitchen cabinet or the worker conditions in his sweat shop.
It is surprising that the symbolism of the purging of leaven as a metaphor for introspection and repentance seems not to appear in the Haggada directly itself and is relegated to the commentaries as meta-interpretation. In fact, the removal, nullification and prohibition to own leaven is not mentioned during the Seder service all… surprising since at least half of the effort in preparing a seder goes into making the home hametz-free! (“On all other nights we eat Hametz and matzo .. on this night we eat only matzoh” does not count.. since the emphasis is on eating matzoh, not clearing and nullifying hametz.)
To be sure, for the Hasidic or more mystically inclined who recite a meditation (kavanah) before or after the Bedikat and Biur Hametz (search and nullification of the leaven) ritual, there is mention of leaven as a metaphor for impurity:
May it be Your will, Lord, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that just as I remove the chametz from my house and from my possession, so shall You remove all the extraneous forces. Remove the spirit of impurity from the earth, remove our evil inclination from us, and grant us a heart of flesh to serve You in truth. Make all the sitra achara, all the kelipot, and all wickedness be consumed in smoke, and remove the dominion of evil from the earth. Remove with a spirit of destruction and a spirit of judgment all that distress the Shechina, just as You destroyed Egypt and its idols in those days, at this time. Amen, Selah.
But the sense of leaven as representing decay, corruption and arrogance is lost.
It occurred to me that while we Jews do our cleaning during our first month Nissan, Persians at the outset of the Iranian Norouz, (the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring) continue the practice of “khooneh tekouni” which literally means “shaking the house”? Everything in the house is thoroughly cleaned, from the drapes to the furniture.
Similarly Lent comes from the word length.. as in the longer days of spring. Instead of Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Church celebrates Clean Monday, otherwise known as Ash Monday. According to Wikipidia:
The common term for this day, “Clean Monday”, refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. It is sometimes called “Ash Monday,” by analogy with Ash Wednesday (the day when the Western Churches begin Lent). …. Liturgically, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on the preceding (Sunday) night, at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which all present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness. In this way, the faithful begin Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly.
The fact that so many other competing religions, especially Christianity, retained the spring-purification rites may explain why it’s symbolism became muted in Judaism. (The: “the leaven of the Pharisees,” snipe does not help.) But for whatever the reason, it seems to me that a reintegration of this critical element of the Passover message is overdue, especially because the Jewish version of spring-purification message is uniquely political… it combines the Exodus-Revolution.. with spring purification…
The unique Spring message of Passover is that in every spring and in every generation, each person and every people needs to look witrhin and at the ruling powers. We have to root out the corruption, pride, arrogance, decay and death that is the “leaven in the dough”, both in our souls and in our public squares… we need to weed out arrogance in our souls but also in our Pharaohs… This political element to the nullification of leaven, is uniquely Jewish.
If I had a Passover message for modern day Egyptians and the Arab square, it is that we Jews support you in your Spring Awakening. We Jews invite you to join us in the celebration of Pesach. We wish that in addition to bringing down your Pharaohs, you also clean away the mold and toxins of anti semitism and victimization with which your rulers have infected and distracted you. We wish you to recognize that we Jews and our local territorial conflict are not the source of much anything that is wrong in the Middle East, certainly not on your street. Know that we Jews (this Passover and every Passover) re-dedicate ourselves to resolving our local issues.. in our house, and we invite you to do the same in your own homes and in your square.
As for me and my fellow Jews, let us reintegrate the political and spiritual, social and ethical message of the awakening of spring and purging/abstinence from decay and corruption into our Passover celebration.
Let us make note that most haggadot, especially older illuminated ones, don’t start with kiddush, but rather with the search for leaven…. even though the search and nullification of leaven takes place before the onset of the holiday and holiday service.
The message is clear: The nullification of the leaven/decay is critical for the freedom that is to follow. Just as the Kol Nidre nullification of vows prior to the onset of Yom Kippur is forever connected to the service to follow, so too, the Kol Hamirah is critical to the seder to follow.
Both nullification (Bitul) formulas are legal in form and in the Aramaic vernacular. Both are combined with an invitation for others to participate, and both are intrinsic to the holiness of the coming day. The difference is that nullification of Hametz is of biblical origin (and requires a blessing) while Kol Nidre is of unknown origin. Most importantly, Kol Nidre has a soulful tune and Kol Hamira has none….
All leaven and leavened products in my possession, whether I have seen them or not, whether I removed them or not, shall be deemed of no value and ownerless like the dust (ash?) of the earth.
Followed by the invitation to join the meal and the service:
All who are hungry, come and eat,
All who are in need, come celebrate the Passover.
“In the tribunal of heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God—blessed be He—and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors.”
“All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, vows, vows, or equivalent terms that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves — from the last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur, and from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good – regarding them all, we regret them henceforth. They all will be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.”
I suggest that when on the morning before the seder, we recite Kol Hamira we follow the direction given by Rav Saadyah Gaon in reference to Kol Nidre and that we: “begin the chant with bated breath, like a servant who approaches his sovereign in fear, then gathers strength in speech, and finally lifts up his suppliant voice, as a son at home in his father’s house.”
I also beseach anyone out there with musical talent to record a soulful tune for Kol Hamira….
For God’s sake… if there’s a tune for the table of contents of the Haggadah (Kadesh, Urchatz, Karpas Yachatz….) can’t there be a tune for the spring awakening?