Thursday, June 28, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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It doesn’t get much wilder than this in the Book of Wilderness – a talking donkey, a prophetic drama, and the d├ębut appearance of one of Western Mythology’s favorites – Satan himself. But you wouldn’t know if from reading any of the English translations of the Bible, where the Lord of Darkness is consistently referred to as ‘the adversary’. To be fair, and with respect to all English translators – this is a valid literal translation of an obscure Hebrew word, but nevertheless, the concept of obstruction on the way towards fulfilling one’s mission in life pops up in this week’s Torah Episode ‘Balak’ - somehow lost (or covered up) in translation.

The book of Wilderness, chapter 22, tells of Balaam, the Prophet of Midyan, a hired gun in the hands of the King of Maob, eager to curse the People Israel. Balaam refuses to cooperate, but at night, while dreaming, he is ordered by God to accompany the messengers of the King and to await further instructions. Balaam, obedient, sets out and quietly rides his donkey on verse 21, when the following happens in verse 22:

"But YHWH's anger flared up because he was going, so YHWH's messenger stationed himself in the way as an adversary to him." This is the Fox translation, while the Stone Artscroll replaces ‘messenger’ with ‘angel’ and ‘adversary’ with ‘impede’: "G-d's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of HASHEM stood on the road to impede him.’

The word for ‘messenger’ is ‘Malach’ is often translated as either Angelic being OR human messenger, but the word for ‘adversary’ is unique - ‘Satan’, to be later identified as the being also known as the ‘Angel of Death’.

In Hebrew, Satan is derived from the root meaning "to oppose", "to be an adversary" or "to act as an adversary". The image is paradoxical and startling: A mysterious being is blocking the path of a prophet who is sent on this journey by the very Deity that now summons the obstacle – the Satanic. It seems that Satan, in this early incarnation, is an integral, antagonistic part of God. Perhaps, psychologically, this Satan represents a part of the Whole, of Life itself – an allegorical representation of conflicting ‘obstacles’ in one’s life. This type of obstacle, however, has a message to deliver – it’s a roadblock that may seem like an adversary but is actually an important road sign, possibly a blessing in disguise.

Interestingly, it is the donkey (a female), and not the prophet, who recognizes this obstacle, and stubbornly refuses to move on: Satan is standing in a very narrow path, brandishing a drawn sword. The irony of a seeing donkey and a blind visionary has been interpreted by mystical commentaries to represent the dialectics between body and soul, intuition and intellect, matter and spirit. Balaam and his ass are a metaphor for the human journey - conflicted, challenged, confused, and traveling a narrow path sometimes strewn with unseen obstacles. Later on in history and mythlogy this condition will become known as ‘Satan’, a very complex and dark concept, but for now it is simply an invisible force blocking one’s path. Sound familiar? Remember the last time you met IT on your path?

Balaam didn’t see it at first, but finally, when the ass speaks, he gets it, opens his eyes, hears the message: Go on your path, but obey your conscious, your moral code.

And that’s exactly what he does next, turning curses into blessings.

Confused? Welcome to Jewish mythology and to the Book of Wilderness, where the wild things are, and where secrets and great truths hide, as they always do, inside fables, on the road to prophecy. No wonder most English translations remove Satan from this story, it’s complicated enough.. Stay tuned to next week’s exploration of ‘miracles’, as the wild ride continues.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Bards of Battle

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

Apologies: this week's Verse per Verse will not feature an audio teaching, as Lauviticus is traveling.

War provides plenty of pain for many and plenty of profit for few. You wouldn't think that poetry is one of those profitable by-products of war, but the Bible seems to think so, or at least so do some of the Biblical translators, who offer an odd spin on an odd word popping up in 'Chukat', this week's installment of the Torah. The context is wartime, as the People Israel get closer to the promised land and the locals are less than thrilled. This weekly tale marks two VIP deaths - Miriam and Aaron - but also informs us of countless deaths of nameless men, women, and children - victims of the war on Canaan. One of those battles is the one with the Emorites, which began as a hostile exchange when Moses requested permission to cross through their land and King Sihon refused and launched an attack. The Emorites lost badly, their cities were taken over by the tribes of Israel, and this is where the poets come in. Or are they journalists? Or official spokesmen? Somehow we get a glimpse into the ancient craft of media in action - translating the horrors of the battlefield into poetry and/or propaganda for the masses. How vast - or not - is the difference between poet and reporter? This bloody text perhaps suggests an answer.

Chapter 21 in the book of Wilderness describes the fall of Heshbon, the Emorite capitol city, and goes on to provides us with a quote from the local poetry of the defeated Emorites themselves - devoting six biblical verses to an obscure epic poem (that sounds like a tourism campaign) praising the city that by then lies in ruins. Verse 27, according to the JPS translation frames it thus:
'Therefore the bard would recite: Come to Heshbon, firmly built and well founded is Sihon's city'.

The word for 'bards' is the Hebrew 'MOSHLIM', translated elsewhere as 'parable makers', 'they that speak in proverbs', 'poets', or 'rhapsodes'. The Hebrew stems from the word 'MASHAL' - that could mean parable, proverb, riddle or allegory. In this case, the poem or parable is nothing more than a taunting rhyme glorifying Emorite victory - quoted later by the Hebrews to showcase their own triumph. Maybe this is the poetic justice - the parable implied - every triumph can result in loss - beware. Reading this in the 21st century - aware of what's going on in Gaza, Baghdad or Darfur - to name just a few war torn regions - the ominous message of the parable is perhaps not lost, but certainly not heeded.

The bards were likely killed though their words survived, and their legacy, amazingly, lingers to tell us something about the role of truth telling in the aftermath of war. The word Moshlim can indeed by translated as 'poets' but it can also be translated, with creative license, as 'rulers' or 'governors'. And since history is always written by the winners, we have here a rare usage of biblical irony - the winners using the triumphant poetry of the former winners to glorify their own story of success. The way you tell the story will determine what really happened - the poet (or media) becomes ruler.

And so, onwards the wild wild east of Sinai travel the weary people Israel, battle will follow battle, as the promised land of milk and honey will beckon closer yet. At rare moments poetry will prosper to give perspective, inspire hope, reflect and guide their journey. The fifth book of Moses, coming soon, is one long litany, and next week, the prophet Balaam will provide some of the most memorable poetic lines in the Bible. So what is it about war, strife and the emergence of poetry? And where, in today's reality, where khaki clad media stars report live from the front line, does the poetry linger? And where, in our personal lives, does suffering inspire rhyme and parables of hope? We would like to believe that precisely from the ruins of demolished cities emerge the type of poetry that ignite a new reality in which we will all march to the beat of a different drum.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This week in the West Bank and Gaza a bloody war is waged – Hamas Vs. Fatah, and it is not clear who are the rebels and who is in charge. Bloodshed in Gaza may sadly not seem as a new phenomena but this level of civil war is defiantly making front page news. Somewhere between mythology and politics, this week’s Torah Episode ‘Korach’ is a sad nod to the history of political factions shedding blood, as it introduces the first public assault on the Moasic administration, a (some say) valid democratic motion that was fatally squashed with Divine intervention. If one is to take sides on this ancient battle, then the official party line is NOT pro rebels. But alas, underdog fans that we are, and especially in these heating up political days, we are not quite sure whether the Korachites and co. who will be mysteriously killed again this coming Saturday at every synagogue where the story will be repeated were guilty of heresy or simply of bad PR. The Divine, however, had quite a firm opinion on this matter and provided a unique and singular sensation to deal with this political opposition – a form of execution so bizarre it was simply referred to as ‘phenomenon’. But, of course, translations differ, and once again, more is hidden here that beckons the seeker of secrets.

The context: Moses has been challenged by his cousin Korach, another Levite, to share power with the other tribal leaders. Moses is outraged and in chapter 16 of the book of Wilderness delivers a passionate speech. It concludes with the proclamation/warning that Divine judgment will settle this dispute and deal with the rebels, once and for all:

16:30 But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the LORD.'

According to this translation – the JPS – a ‘new thing’ is to be made by the Lord, looking like the ground opening ‘her mouth’ to swallow up the bad guys. Is this an odd way to describe a local earthquake?

The Hebrew word used here, and ONLY here throughout the Bible, is BRIAA – literally – ‘creation’, translated elsewhere as ‘Novelty’, ‘New creation’, ‘something unheard of’, or ‘phenomenon’.

The tricky thing is that the word BRIAA stems from the same root that describes the very creation of the world back at the beginning of Genesis. SO – is this earthquake an afterthought? Was it ‘created’ just in time for this political crisis? What is the unique feature of this terrible event?

From a mythic point of view, Jewish scholarship has held that indeed Korach was a unique case, swallowed up whole by the ‘mouth of the earth’ – which opened and then closed again - just this once. The earth’s mouth, according to this Talmudic legend, was created on the first Friday of Creation, just before Sunset, and set aside for this and only this occasion. This way, the Talmudic sages solved the problem – it was a NEW creation – but already planned for at the beginning of time.

The Pseudo Jonathan translation however, goes political, not mythic, when translating this verse to his contemporary audience, who then, like now understood the relevant implications of this story: "But if a death which has not been created since the days of the world be now created for them, and if a mouth for the earth, which has not been made from the beginning of the world, be created now, and the earth open her mouth and swallow them and all they have, and they go down alive into Sheol, you will understand that these men have provoked the Lord to anger."

The implication here is clear – some actions deserve similar repercussions, and a rebellion against God’s Authorized Leadership is punishable in mythic proportions.

In today’s political climate one would hope for a more benign method of dealing with opposition, but, we wonder, what IS the modern equivalent of being swallowed up alive by a new and unimagined form of humiliation and/or extinction? Certainly the news from the Middle East leave one hoping for humanity learning from the past, and finding new ways of dealing with opposition and conflict.

As for Korach’s legacy, it lives on. He may have paid with his life and the lives of his followers for challenging Moses, but some say his sons did not die. If you listen closely, you can hear them sing. Open the psalms for a long list of hymns composed by Korach’s lines of Levites. Some rebellions get swallowed up but the music, apparently, lives on, every time a new creation.

Shabbat shalom

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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About a month ago, three of the Ten Republican candidates for presidency raised their hand in reply to the oddly phrased question – “Is there anyone on the stage who does not believe in evolution?" Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates confessed their ‘journeys of faith’ - especially at difficult times. Faith, creationism, and biblical defined family values are definitely on stage in the current national political arena, more than ever before with the Bible becoming much more than just a book held by those who are sworn into office. What, one wonders, do either camps do with a puzzling verse from this week’s Torah Episode that flaunts reason and describes mythic creatures that are best described as ‘giants’? Yet again, one word, lost in translation, opens up a portal to a complex narrative that challenges the assumption of what is or isn’t ‘real’.

The context: Ready to explore the Promised Land prior to conquest, the People Israel send over a delegation of spies, who, upon return, share a mixed review. 10 of the 12 give it a ‘thumbs down’: the land is good, but the indigenous people are bad news. There are, in fact, giants, waiting in Canaan. Or so, at least some English translations, while most refrain from translating the Hebrew word and retain the original - Nephilim. A closer look at this unique word unfolds a bizarre and obscure legend, where Sinai becomes the roaming ground of creatures as literally ‘fabled’ as Shrek. Well, maybe we don’t get ogres in the Torah, but an extinct species that has been identified and interpreted as either fallen angels, supermen, or aliens (!) - shows up in what biblical scholar E. Cassuto described as ‘one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible.’

The book of Wilderness, chapter 13, verse 23 describes the report of the returning spies – this is the King James Bible version:
‘And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’

The Pseudo Jonathan Aramaic translation goes a step further, attributing behavioral ways and racial origins: ‘…and all the people who are in the land are giants, masters of evil ways, of the race of the giants.’

The word ‘Nephhilim’ rarely occurs in the Bible, probably stemming from the primitive Semitic root NFL -‘to fall down’ - in a great variety of applications such as – ‘fallen’, ‘dropped’ or even ‘inferior’, or ‘aborted’.

Where have these giants fallen from? And/or is this a way of saying they are now extinct? Aborted experiments? Genesis 6:2 gives a clue – describing another mythic mystery - the union of the ‘sons of God with the daughters of men’ a union leading to a new race of hybrids – the original Nephillim. The Aramaic translation over there suggests this radical version: ‘the sons of God are the angels known as Shmachzai and Azaael, who have fallen from heaven, and descended in those days upon the earth.’ Fallen angles? They do not show up explicitly in the Torah, but do appear in the Judaic oral tradition, and by the time Christian theology comes around the myth of ‘renegade angels’ that defy God and fall down to earth becomes a very popular story. In fact, it becomes more than just a story – it becomes a way to explain evil on earth – some of us are children of Eve and Adam, but some – according to this narrative – are the children of a different and dark union, the descendents of the Nephillim, who are of the seed of bad angels.

Back to our story: Giants or angels, and according to some conspiracy theorists – aliens who ‘fell’ from the sky – are what the spies see when the view their new reality in Canaan. Either way, they are terrified – and see themselves as insignificant insects in the sight of their potential enemies. Were there real giants there? Sons of evil angels? Giant sculptures that the desert dwellers mistook for people? Or is this an exaggerated report from a group of leaders who are afraid of the future and prefer to cling to the past?
Perhaps this story reflects the way we view ‘other’ and chart our future journeys into unknown territories. When are opponents projected upon to become giant threats when perhaps all they present is simply a new paradigm?

This reminds us of the quote attributed to Bernard of Charters, a 12th century monk - ‘We are like dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and see farther than the ancients."

As each of us journeys towards our version of a Promised Land – who or what are the giants that await? Or are we sitting on their shoulders??

Shabbat shalom!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Big Mouth

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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One of the appealing built-in features of Judaic thought is that the Divine, known colloquially as God, has no corporal form: God is an idea: abstract, meta-physical, impossible for accurate depiction. Funny thing is, if you read the Torah in its original Hebrew, God is very physical: has a hand, a nose, a behind – and very clearly in this week’s Episode ‘B’halot’cha ’ – a mouth, presumably big. But you wouldn’t know this seemingly ‘pagan’ concept from any of the translations into other languages. Consistently, and for thousands of years, translators have worked hard to hide this notion of the literally oral transmission of revelation, opting for abstract terms that mask the original. More is concealed here than just a word.

The Book of ‘In the Wilderness’, chapter nine, verse twenty three, for instance, narrates the procedure by which the people Israel went about the ongoing business of wandering in the desert – this is the King James version: ‘At the commandment of the LORD they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the LORD they journeyed…’

The word ‘commandment’ translates the original Hebrew word ‘pi’ – ‘mouth’ (pronounced like the letter ‘P’). This translation is too radical for modern translators, as, for instance the Artscroll Torah translates this as ‘According to the word’, or the Fox version is ‘By order’. The classic Aramaic translation Jonathan Ben Uzziel extends the image in a very tantalizing and complex way: ‘By the mouth of the Word of the Lord they encamped’.

How complex the business of transmitting (or translating) the sacred wisdom – so much that such a rich image is concealed to be covered up by veils and metaphors. This is a fascinating example of how evolution is so much part of theology, philosophy – and translations, each influencing the other.

The interesting thing about the word ‘pi’ is that it doesn’t only mean ‘mouth’ but also ‘edge’ as in ‘the edge of a sword’. ‘The mouth of the sword’ is not idiom that exists in English, but it does repeat, dripping with blood, throughout the Torah – and the double edge of this word’s multiple meaning was probably not lost on the original Tellers and listeners of Torah. God’s word = lethal weapon.

Oy. To soften this sharp image, the next passage in the Torah goes musical - linking the divine command not to war – but to the blast of trumpets. Chapter 10 describes how the people Israel knew when to pack and when to park - they heard the blast of two ceremonial sliver trumpets. This ancient and elaborate public-address system was conducted by the Levites who were (supposedly) signaled by Moses – who got the OK from the very mouth of God. And since you gotta use your mouth to blow a trumpet, we like to imagine that good folks of the ancient People Israel, no theolgicans, happily assumed that God sounds like a trumpet, delivering them their marching orders. It’s a stretch – but not really. Surely music, symbolized here by the trumpets, is an element that gets us going on or settling down – markers on our journeys. From shofar to Oboe and all in between - music is one of the more powerful paths we have to savor the sacred, to hear the divine.

‘pi’ as ‘word’, ‘mouth’, or ‘sword’ is merely a portal, yet another opening into a vast wilderness of wandering and wondering, which still goes on, and is to be continued…

Shabbat Shalom