Law in the Desert

Talk of failed New Year’s resolutions! Three or four times over the years, come Rosh Hashanah, I’ve promised myself that this year, this year, I’ll study at home each week, with its standard commentaries, the parshat ha-shavu’a, the weekly Torah reading recited in synagogue on the Sabbath. Three or four times, I’ve started out a few weeks later with high hopes. Three or four times, I’ve worked my way through the ten weekly readings of Genesis and the first five of Exodus. Three or four times, I’ve stopped there. Studying the weekly Torah reading with its commentaries is an old Jewish custom, and many Jews—most, unlike myself, regular synagogue-goers—repeat the entire 52-week cycle of the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, year after year. Although different annotated editions of the Chumash have different commentaries, the more complete sets include, at a minimum, the 2nd-century Aramaic translation of the Bible known as Targum Onkelos; the 11th-century commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki or Rashi; the 12th-century commentary of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, and the 13th-century commentary of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides or “the Ramban.” Together with the voluminous corpus of the Midrash upon which they frequently draw, these are the main pillars of Jewish biblical exegesis, on which all subsequent commentators have built.

Each has its distinctive traits. The Targum, though on the whole highly literal, occasionally introduces free rabbinic interpretations into the text. Rashi, a meticulous Hebraist, is pietistic in outlook and a faithful transmitter of rabbinic tradition. Ibn Ezra, no less scrupulous a grammarian, is a rationalist with a preference for naturalistic and sometimes philosophical explanations. The Ramban likes to rely on his predecessors for the plain meanings of verses while focusing on broader contextual issues.

They complement one another. Their interplay isn’t always explicit. “Your brother has come in deceit and taken your blessing,” says Isaac to Esau in the sixth weekly reading of Genesis upon realizing that he has been tricked by Jacob. Onkelos, like the ancient rabbis, is disturbed by this—how can one revered Patriarch call another a deceiver?—and translates the Hebrew be-mirma, “in deceit,” as the Aramaic be-chukhma, “with wisdom.” Rashi echoes Onkelos without citing him. Ibn Ezra demurs without mentioning either man. “He told a lie,” he says tersely of Jacob, tacitly rebuking Rashi and Onkelos for whitewashing the text. The Ramban seeks to adjudicate. Yes, he says, Isaac does call Jacob a deceiver—but Isaac realizes the deceit is justifiable, having had the insight that Jacob, though not his own choice, is God’s, thus making Jacob a wise deceiver.

Halkin - Jacob

The Patriarchs! Often I have thought of them as great, lawless spirits taken captive by moralistic minds. Of course Jacob lies. He has to, precisely because his father does not have the insight the Ramban attributes to him. If anyone has it, it’s Jacob’s mother Rebecca, who masterminds the deceit. Jacob goes along with her willingly. He knows that the stakes—the legacy of the blessing first given by God to Abraham—are too high to allow for the rules of fairness. He grasps the magnitude of this legacy better than does Esau and so is worthier of it. In Genesis, the worthiest strive to fulfill a destiny of whose grandeur they are conscious even if they, too, do not fully comprehend it.

But Esau is himself a wonderful character—wonderful in grief when he cries out, “Bless me, Father, too,” and wonderful in forbearance when he and Jacob meet again years later. The rabbis, painting him in dark colors to highlight Jacob’s virtue, begrudge him any acknowledgment of this. Does the Bible tell us he was a capable fellow, “a man skilled in hunting”? “Hunting,” writes Rashi, conveys Esau’s shameless stalking of his father’s favors. Did he sell his birthright because he came home one day “weary” and desperate for refreshment? He was weary of all the murders he had committed. Drawn with great sympathy by the biblical text, he gets none from the classical commentators.

They flatten the text, these commentators, so as to re-elevate it on their own terms. I preferred my Patriarchs to theirs: lawless, unbridled, freely camping and decamping, putting up and taking down their tents; always on the move with their wives, their children, their concubines, their flocks and camels, their bitter family quarrels passed down from generation to generation; always restlessly seeking, carrying with them the destiny not fully understood. Abraham, the reckless gambler; timid yet tenacious Isaac; wily Jacob, tricking and being tricked; suave, diplomatic Joseph, lowering the curtain on Genesis with a happy ending just when it has come to seem the most tragic of books; Joseph, the divine impresario!

The curtain stays down for hundreds of years. When it rises again, the Patriarchs’ descendants are slaves in Egypt, ignorant of the legacy over which their ancestors fought. Moses appears—impetuous, self-doubting, unyielding, long-suffering Moses! He encounters the God of his forefathers. He and his brother Aaron confront Pharaoh. They inflict ten plagues on the Egyptians. They lead the Israelites to a mountain in the desert. Moses ascends it to receive the Law. “And Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord came down on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke from a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” Onkelos, anxious as always to avoid physicalizing God, translates “came down on it” as “was revealed on it.” Rashi, having no such compunctions, tells us that God spread the sky over the mountain “as though covering a bed with a sheet” and lowered His throne onto it. Ibn Ezra remarks that Mount Sinai only trembled metaphorically. The Ramban explains that the Israelites did not see God descend in the fire but heard His voice saying, “I am the Lord your God . . . You shall have no other God beside me . . . You shall make no graven image of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below . . .”

It’s a page-turner, the parshat ha-shavu’a. I can’t wait for the next installment.

It comes. It’s called Mishpatim, “Laws.” It begins:

These are the laws you shall set before them. Should you buy a Hebrew slave, six years he shall serve and in the seventh he shall go free . . . And should an ox gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, and the ox’s owner is clear . . . And should a man open a pit, or should a man dig a pit and not cover it and an ox or donkey fall in, the owner of the pit shall pay silver, and the carcass shall be his . . .

Next comes Terumah, “Donation.” It concerns the construction of the Tabernacle. It begins:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, that they take me a donation from every man . . . And this is the donation you shall take from them: gold and silver and bronze and indigo and purple and crimson and linen and goat hair and reddened ram skins and ocher-dyed skins and acacia wood . . .”

After Terumah comes Tetzaveh, “You Shall Command.” It’s about the garments and sacrifices of the priests serving in the Tabernacle. It begins:

And you shall command the Israelites . . . and these are the garments they shall make: breastplate and ephod and robe and checkwork tunic, turban, and sash.

So this is the legacy! The grand narrative flow of Genesis and the first half of Exodus is over, though it still will burst forth in trickles here and there. It couldn’t have happened soon enough for Rashi. In his first comment on the first verse of Genesis he approvingly quotes the 4th-century Rabbi Yitzhak as saying that little would have been lost had the Bible started in the middle of Exodus, since “the crux of the Torah is only its commandments.”

Three or four times over the years, I reached the commandments. Three or four times, I got no further.

Last Rosh Hashanah, I resolved, after a long hiatus, to try again. I’m now at the end of Exodus and going strong. What made this year different? In part, my deciding to read the biblical text not in Hebrew but in the Latin Vulgate of the Christian church father Jerome. This added the stimulation of novelty.

Jerome translated the Bible while living in Palestine in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. An accomplished author in his own right, he studied Hebrew and Aramaic and regularly consulted Onkelos’ Targum; the Greek Septuagint (a Jewish translation of the Bible, the world’s first, done in Alexandria in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.E.), and diverse rabbinic sources. Even more faithful than the Targum to the literal meaning of the biblical text, he was far freer with its form and took frequent liberties with its Hebrew syntax, whose extreme simplicity, with its repetitive reliance on short, independent clauses linked by paratactic “and’s,” fell short of his standards of Latin elegance. Often he subordinated clause to clause, as we do in English with all our “when’s,” “while’s,” “before’s,” and “during’s” that biblical Hebrew commonly eschews.

Jerome translated the legal and ritual sections of the Chumash out of a sense of duty; he could not but have been, I suspect, rather bored by them. While they, too, were a part of God’s word, they were the part that God had abrogated. Both Jerome’s Christian faith and his taste in prose would have inclined him more to the structured rhetoric of a Pauline epistle like Romans that declares:

Now we know that whatsoever things the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the Law is the knowledge of sin.

Dutiful Jerome, laboring faithfully through the laws of goring oxen, the measurements of the Tabernacle, and the vestments of its priests when they only led to the knowledge of sin!

Not that Paul was against laws. His epistles counsel adherence to those of Rome. But those were the laws of secular authority. Breaking them made one a criminal in the eyes of the state, not a sinner in the eyes of God. God had not promulgated them. He had promulgated the Law given at Sinai—and He had done so, paradoxically, knowing that its statutes were too numerous and complicated to be obeyed, so that anyone seeking to do so would be ultimately reduced to a helpless sense of his inability to perform God’s will. This, as Paul saw it, was the Law’s whole purpose: to produce in its adherents an overwhelming consciousness of sin, alien to the pagan world, that would compel them, followed by the rest of humanity, to throw themselves on the mercy of God’s grace as manifested through the son sent to atone for them.

I’ve always sympathized with Paul. He was raised, as I was, in the world of Jewish observance, and while he felt too cramped by it to remain in it, he was too attached to it to let go of it. He longed to link up with the rest of humanity while remaining the Jew that he was, and by repudiating the Law in the name of the Law he found a brilliant if tortured way of doing so. Long before Spinoza, he was the prototype of a certain kind of modern Jewish intellectual.

As a child, I, too, knew the difference between the laws of Rome and the laws of God. When I was 6 or 7 years old, sent by my mother to buy a newspaper, I took two papers from a pile at the stand by mistake, while paying only for one; but although I lived for a while in great fear of being arrested, I got over it as soon as I realized that my crime had gone unnoticed. It was different when I unwittingly placed a meat fork in the dairy silverware drawer in our kitchen. Then I had a consciousness of sin, which lasted longer. God was no kiosk owner.

All around me were sins waiting to be committed. If I forgot to say my bedtime prayers, I had sinned. If I unthinkingly switched on a light on the Sabbath, I had sinned. I envied the Patriarchs who lived before the Law. Hadn’t Abraham served his guests milk and butter with their meat? That was why Rashi was in such a hurry to get past him to the commandments. Yet three or four times over the years, I groaned when I reached them. So must have Jerome. Haec sunt iudicia quae propones eis, these are the laws you shall set before them. I did not want them set before me.

The second half of Exodus can be read as a study in the institutionalization of religion. No longer a small roaming band to whom God can appear anywhere and at any time, the Israelites leave Egypt as twelve tribes. They need what any large group needs if it is not to degenerate into a mob: clear rules of conduct, recognized penalties for breaking them, established forms and places of worship, trained specialists to mediate between them and the divine. Mishpatim, Terumah, Tetzaveh: these lay the foundations for a code of civil behavior, a centralized cultus, a priestly class. They mark, in the biblical narrative, a transition from an era of spontaneity between man and man, and between man and God, to one of regulated order. This is necessary. It is part of God’s plan. But as with all institutionalizations of originally spontaneous relationships, one feels nostalgic for what has been lost.

It is part of God’s second plan. His first is to create in six days a world that is all good and let human beings made in His image run it independently. This works out badly. The first humans disobey Him and are driven from Eden. By the tenth generation, the generation of Noah, “God saw the earth and it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on the earth.”

God wipes out everything with a great flood and starts anew. This time He will do it differently. He will ignore most of the human race; it is too large, too unruly, for Him to work with. He will proceed slowly, methodically. And so He begins with a single individual, Abraham. Again and again He tests him to make sure He has chosen correctly, satisfied only by the last, pitiless trial of the sacrifice of Isaac. From there He moves on to a family, carefully winnowing it as it grows until it consists of twelve brothers. Taking time out to let their offspring multiply and be enslaved in Egypt, He is now ready for the next stage: He will take the descendants of these brothers out of bondage and make them a model people—”a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” as He tells them when they are assembled before Him at Sinai. They will be His pilot project on earth. Once it succeeds, He can extend it to the rest of humanity.

A model people needs model laws. God goes about it pedagogically, starting with the laws that He knows will be of greatest interest. As the Ramban puts it: “God began with the laws of the Hebrew slave because freeing him in the seventh year was a reminder of the exodus from Egypt.” More than a reminder: a promise to an anxious people that it will not be re-enslaved by the more powerful of its own brothers. One imagines the stir in the desert. Six years of servitude and no more! So this is law! Real slaves have no laws but the whims of their masters.

There follow laws of property, laws of damages and restitution, laws of theft and murder, laws of sexual relationships: the basic norms that a functional society must have. All else is in abeyance. Moses is on the mountain receiving the Law, and we, the Bible’s readers, are given a preview of it while the worried Israelites camped below await Moses’ return. We know the Law’s contents before they do.

The narrative only resumes with the weekly reading of Ki Tisa. Afraid that Moses has abandoned them and left them leaderless in the desert, the Israelites say to Aaron, “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” And so Aaron collects their gold jewelry and fashions from it a calf—a graven image—and the people worship it and revel around it. High on the mountain, Moses is told by God, “Go, go down, for your people, which you have brought out of Egypt, has been corrupted.” Moses descends after first persuading God not to exterminate the Israelites as He threatens to; sees them dancing around the calf; angrily smashes the tablets of the Law that he is carrying, and commands the Levites to commit a punitive massacre in which three thousand people are killed.

“For your people has been corrupted,” ki shichet amkha: Rashi’s comment on the cutting “your”—that of a father who comes home to find his son misbehaving and tells his wife it’s her child, not his—is to assure us that God is not disassociating Himself from the Israelites, but scolding Moses for having permitted idolatrous heathen to join them and lead them astray. Well, that’s Rashi for you: always sticking up for the Jews. But why does neither he nor any of the other commentators in my Chumash point out that the verb shachet, to act corruptly, is the very same verb used in Genesis to describe the human race on the eve of the flood? Why does no one dwell on the obvious parallel between the two stories? In both, God sets out to create or recreate the world. In both, all goes well for a while. In both, the illusion of success soon collapses. In both, God resolves to destroy what He has done and begin again, the second time with Moses as a second Noah or Abraham. (“And now leave me be,” God tells Moses, “that my wrath may flare against them, and I will put an end to them, and I will make you a great nation.”) In both, God repents of His fury and offers its survivors an eternal pact—a promise not to repeat the flood, a reaffirmation of His covenant with Israel.

There must be commentators who have noticed this. The Zohar, itself a mystical commentary on the Chumash written shortly after the time of the Ramban, does notice it. When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, it says, they fell from the heights of Sinai to the lower depths, for the same serpent that poisoned Adam poisoned them, so that gerimu mota le-khol alma, they brought, like Adam and Eve, death upon the whole world. The debacle at Sinai is a cosmic catastrophe, comparable only to the sin in Eden and its aftermath in reflecting as much on the incorrigibility of God’s optimism as on that of man’s waywardness.

Halkin - Moses

I was wrong to think that the narrative flow of Exodus had ever stopped. Mishpatim, Terumah, and Tetzaveh were a continuation of it. They were needed, not only as a contretemps to create a sense of lapsed time, the forty days spent by Moses on the mountain, between two contiguous events, but because the drama lost much of its intensity without them. Their detail was necessary to illustrate the effort God had put into designing a Law flouted by His chosen people as soon as Moses turned his back on them—to illustrate the extent of His failure. His second attempt at forging order out of chaos, it is even more galling than the first, since the lesson learned from the first has not kept it from being repeated.

This realization—parshat ha-shavu’a students would call it a chidush, a new way of looking at things—carried me excitedly through the last six Torah readings of Exodus that had always stymied me before. Suddenly, God’s effort needed to be understood. It was an integral part of the story. “And should a man open a pit, or should a man dig a pit and not cover it, and an ox or donkey fall in, the owner of the pit shall pay silver, and the carcass shall be his . . .” Did that mean that if an ox wandered onto my property and fell into a pit and was killed, I, the pit’s owner, was responsible?

No, said Rashi. My property was my property. The Torah was referring to a pit dug in the public domain.

But if I dig a pit in the public domain, how am I its owner?

By “owner,” Ibn Ezra explains, the Torah designates the pit’s user, since it must have been dug for some use.

Then I have no liability at all for a pit dug on my own property?

My parshat ha-shavu’a commentators weren’t clear about this. I looked at the 3rd-century-C.E. Mishnah, the earliest systematic explication of biblical law. Yes, said the first chapter of Bava Kama, the opening part of the treatise of Nezikin or “Damages”: if in digging a pit on my own property I cross the line separating it from the public domain, or from someone else’s property, anyone falling into it from the other side is my responsibility, too.

But it was more complicated than that. The 6th-century Gemara, the systematic explication of the Mishnah, stated that according to Rabbi Akiva, even if the pit was entirely on my property, I was still liable if I hadn’t made clear that trespassing was forbidden. Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. The Gemara’s discussion of their disagreement was long and intricate, and I had trouble following it.

Nor would following it in the Gemara have been enough to know the outcome. For that, I would have had to consult the Ge’onim, the 7th-to-11th-century Talmudic scholars of Babylonia; and after them, the Rishonim, the 11th to 16th century–scholars of North Africa and Europe; and after them the Acharonim, the scholars who came later—in short, the whole vast edifice of Jewish law. It suddenly towered above me, this edifice, in all its architectural immensity, dizzyingly tall—explication upon explication, disagreement upon disagreement, complication upon complication—and for the first time, though I had never gotten beyond its bottom floors, I felt that I grasped its full grandeur, the indomitable scope of its determination to make up for the golden calf. Century after century, the Jews had labored to convince God that He was right not to have given up on them at Sinai—that His pilot project could still work—that they would devote themselves to it endlessly, tirelessly, even if it took thousands of years—even if the rest of humanity went its own way in the meantime—even if the rest of humanity agreed that the Law only led to the knowledge of sin.

I‘ve been thinking about the knowledge of sin.

Over the years I’ve been involved, sometimes alone and sometimes with others, in more court cases than I’d have liked to be. Nothing major. A case involving my father, then ill with Alzheimer’s, who was defrauded by his neighborhood grocer. A case involving a mobile phone antenna erected illegally opposite our home. A running battle with the town in which we live about building rights on our land. A consequent suit for damages filed by us. A fight with the local planning commission over a road it wanted to run through our and our neighbors’ property. Another fight to stop a nearby restaurant from blasting loud music into the night. All trivial stuff.

On the whole, the courts have performed creditably. I can’t complain too much about the judges. The depressing thing has been the deceit with which they’ve had to deal. Corrupt authorities. Secret, illicit deals. Law enforcers looking the other way. Manipulation of evidence. Lies on the witness stand. Suborning of witnesses.

I suppose it’s that way everywhere. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s only the laws of Rome. If you think you can get away with it, you break them. I’ve broken my share of them myself.

Wouldn’t we be better off with the Law of God? If every bribe taker and perjurer knew he was sinning?

Not that you can’t know you’re a sinner and still sin. And the laws of Mishpatim say not only “You shall take no bribe” and “You shall not bear false witness,” but also “Should a man sell his daughter as a slave girl, she shall not go free as the male slaves go free,” and “Whoever speaks profanely of his father and mother shall be put to death.” For all practical purposes, the rabbis abolished the death penalty even for murder, let alone for swearing at one’s parents, but that isn’t the point. The point is that knowing you’re a sinner in the eyes of the Law means believing the Law—all of it—is God’s. There may be nothing to keep you from obeying just those parts of it that you like, but if that’s your attitude, you won’t feel sinful when you disobey them. The laws of God and the laws of Rome are then two versions of the same thing.

I don’t say I believe the Law is God’s. I only say I’ve come to believe that if God had a plan for humanity, He would give it a Law, and he would not abrogate it as Paul thought He did.

I haven’t always been of that opinion. But neither was God. The first time around, He thought men could manage on their own and waited ten generations before deciding He was wrong.

A generation for Methusaleh was longer than it is for us, and even by our own paltry standards I haven’t lived through three. Still—so I found myself thinking this year while studying the parshat ha-shavu’a—I already am where God was after ten.

I’m not happy with that. I have an anarchistic streak. I’ve never liked being told what to do. I’ve always wanted to do the right thing because I wanted to, not because I had to. I’ve wanted to do it Paul’s way, without the Law, “for when the Gentiles, which have not the Law, do by nature the things contained in the Law, these, having not the Law, are a law unto themselves.”

Like the Patriarchs.

It’s a nice idea. It was clever of Paul to have thought of it. It just doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the days of Noah and it won’t work now. There isn’t enough of mankind that, having no Law, will do by nature the things contained in the Law. We need a sense of sin to bridle us. If it’s taken me most of a lifetime to realize that, then that’s what lifetimes must be for.

This week was Pekudei, the last Torah reading of Exodus. Before it came Vayakhel. Together they are two of the most tedious parshot ha-shavu’a in the Chumash. Vayakhel relates how the Israelites built the Tabernacle according to the instructions in Terumah; Pekudei, how they made the priests’ vestments according to the instructions in Tetzaveh. Both repeat the language of Terumah and Tetzaveh almost to a word. “And they shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, and a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height,” says Terumah. “And Bezalel made an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, and a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height,” says Vayakhel. The commentators fall silent. What’s there to add?

But a chidush is a chidush­—and now I read even Vayakhel and Pekudei with fresh eyes, starting with the former’s opening verses, which describe how the Israelites, called upon to donate “gold and silver and bronze and indigo and purple and crimson and linen and goat hair and reddened ram skins and ocher-dyed skins and acacia wood,” respond with such enthusiasm that Moses has to tell them to stop, there being already more than enough. If it occurred to any of the commentators in my Chumash that behind this outpouring of public-spiritedness was a consciousness of sin, they kept it to themselves. I can’t say it didn’t occur to me.

There is a cheerfulness in Vayakhel and Pekudei that would hardly have seemed possible a short time before when Moses dashed the Law to the ground. Everyone is bringing gifts to the Tabernacle; everyone is measuring, making, fitting. Bezalel runs around giving orders. We hear the sounds of saws and hammers; there is a smell of freshly cut lumber, the crisp colors of newly died fabrics.

And they made the boards for the Tabernacle, twenty boards for the southern end . . . And they made the curtain of indigo and purple and crimson, designer’s work they made it . . . And they made tunics of twisted linen, weaver’s work, for Aaron and his sons . . .

It’s like a huge stage set on which a multitude of workers is racing to get things done in time for the premiere.

The date arrives. It’s the anniversary of the exodus, the first day of the first month of its second year. Miraculously, everything is ready. The Tabernacle is standing. The Ark of the Covenant is in place. The showbread is on the table. The lamp in the Tent of Meeting is lit. The golden altar is ready for its offerings. Moses enters and offers up the burnt offering and the meal offering as commanded. The audience holds its breath.

And then it happens: “And cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.”

It’s a mini-Sinai, God’s glory in a cloud like fire in smoke. All that light and dark mixed together, the brightest sunshine and the blackest gloom!

“And the cloud went up from over the Tabernacle, the Israelites would journey onward in all their journeyings. And if the cloud did not go up, they would not journey onward until the day it went up. For the Lord’s cloud was over the Tabernacle by day, and fire by night was in it, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.”

Explicit, says Jerome, liber Ellesmoth id est Exodus.

Bring on Leviticus.

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