Tag Archives: Nimrod

The Difference between “Jew” and “Hebrew”

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?

Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.

The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).

Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)

Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.

Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.

Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?

Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?

The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Babel to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.

An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.

“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform

From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”.  The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”

One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.

Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.

Rebels and Mystics

Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.

His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.

In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.

A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)

Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.

Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)

Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Israel and Jeshurun

The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.

The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.

Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.

What is a Jew?

By the middle of the 1st century BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.

As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.

Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!

All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?

It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).

So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.

And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:

Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…

There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.

The First Pesach: Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?

The holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt over three thousand years ago. The Torah tells us that because of their hasty departure, the dough of the Israelites did not have time to rise, hence the consumption of matzah. Yet, the term matzah appears in the Torah long before the Exodus! We read in Genesis 19:3 that Lot welcomed the angels into his home and “made them a feast, and baked matzot, and they ate.” Since the angels came to Lot immediately after visiting Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of Isaac at that time next year (Genesis 18:10), the Sages learn from this that Isaac was born on Passover. Of course, the Exodus only took place four hundred years after Isaac’s birth! How is it that the patriarchs are already eating matzah?

An Eternal Torah

Although the Torah was given to the Israelites following the Exodus, Jewish tradition affirms that the Torah is eternal, and even predates existence. A famous verse in the Zohar (II, 161a) states that “God looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Adam knew the whole Torah, and was taught its deepest secrets by the angel Raziel. Many of these teachings were passed on by Adam to future generations, down to Noah, then his son Shem, and eventually to the Patriarchs who, according to tradition, studied at Shem’s academy. So, while the Torah tradition officially dates back to Sinai, in some ways it dates back all the way to Creation! It’s also important to keep in mind that the Patriarchs were prophets, which means that even though they did not have a physical, written Torah, there is no reason why they could not have received the Torah’s wisdom directly from God.

As such, it is said that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah and fulfilled all the mitzvot. When Jacob sends a message to Esau after his sojourn in Charan he tells him “I have lived [garti] with Laban” (Genesis 32:5). On this, Rashi says that garti (גרתי) is an anagram of taryag (תרי״ג), the 613 commandments, meaning that despite living under the oppressive Laban for twenty years, Jacob still observed all 613 commandments. Yet, this is impossible since Jacob married two sisters—a clear Torah prohibition! Similarly, when Abraham meets Melchizedek (ie. Shem) following his victory over the Mesopotamian kings, he tells him that he will not take any reward whatsoever, not even “a thread or strap” (Genesis 14:23). For this, the Sages say, Abraham’s descendants merited the mitzvah of tzitzit (the threads) and tefillin (the straps). In that case, Abraham himself did not wear tefillin or tzitzit. From such instances we see that the patriarchs did not keep the Torah completely, at least not the Torah as we know it.

Emanations of Torah

While Kabbalistic texts often point out that the Torah is eternal and served as the very blueprint of Creation, they also go into more detail to explain that this primordial Torah was not quite the same as the Torah we have today. Each of the four mystical universes (Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut) has an ever-more refined level of Torah, with the highest being the Torah of Atzilut. Our Torah is the one of Asiyah, and is full of mitzvot only due to Adam’s sin and the corruption of mankind. In Olam HaBa, the Torah of Atzilut will finally be revealed, which is why Jewish tradition holds that many mitzvot will no longer apply in that future time. This is said to be the meaning of Isaiah 51:4 where God proclaims that in the messianic times “a Torah will go forth from Me”; and of Jeremiah 31:30 where God says He will forge a brit chadashah, a “new covenant”, with Israel. (This latter term was usurped by Christians for their “New Testament”.)

An even more intriguing idea is that the “New Torah” will be composed of the exact same letters as the current one we possess, just rearranged to form new words! Yet another is based on the well-known principle that the Heavenly Torah is composed of “black fire on white fire”. This is often used to explain the fact that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, even though it is always described as having 600,000 letters (one for each Israelite at Mt. Sinai)—there are 304,805 letters of “black fire” and the rest are the invisible letters of “white fire”. Gershom Scholem cites a number of Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts suggesting that these currently-invisible “white fire” letters are the true eternal Torah! (See Scholem’s Kabbalah, pgs. 171-174, for a complete analysis of these concepts.)

It is this primordial Torah that was originally taught to Adam, and was passed down through his descendants to the Patriarchs, who carefully observed it. As such, it appears that eating matzah is an eternal mitzvah that already appeared in the primordial Torah before the Exodus and the revelation of the current Torah of Asiyah. What was the meaning behind that consumption of matzah?

Bread of Faith

Matzah is called the “bread of faith”. It symbolizes our faithfulness to God, who took us out of Egypt to be His people: “Let My people go so that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16, 26). Further emphasizing this point, the word matzot is spelled exactly like mitzvot. This simple, “humble” bread symbolizes our subservience to God’s commands. We are His faithful servants, just as the Patriarchs were His faithful servants. So they, too, ate matzah as a sign of their faith. They ate matzah because God had liberated them, too, from various hardships.

The very first Patriarch, Abraham, was miraculously saved from Nimrod’s furnace. He also dwelled in Egypt for a time before God miraculously brought him out of there with great wealth, just as his descendants would do centuries later. And then came his greatest test of faith: the Akedah. Amazingly, the apocryphal Book of Jubilees connects this event with the future Passover holiday. In chapter 18, it suggests that God commanded the Akedah to Abraham on the 15th of Nisan. As the Torah states, Abraham journeyed for three days before the Akedah happened and then, naturally, it took him three days to return home. Thus, the whole ordeal spanned seven days, and when Abraham returned, he established a seven-day “festival to Hashem” from the 15th of Nisan. The future seven-day Passover holiday would happen on those same days in that same month.

“Abraham’s Sacrifice”, a 15th century piece of Timurid-Mongolian art

While the Sages do debate whether some of the Torah’s major events (including Creation itself) happened in the month of Tishrei or Nisan, the accepted Jewish tradition is that the Akedah happened in Tishrei. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting that the Binding of Isaac should happen on Passover, when Isaac was born. In this case, the ram that Abraham ultimately offered in place of Isaac would serve as a proto-Pesach offering. After all, the ram is nothing but a male sheep, and it is the ram that is the astrological sign of Nisan, and it was those ram-headed gods that the Egyptians worshipped that needed to be slaughtered by the Israelites (as discussed last week). Whatever the case, the Book of Jubilees offers an intriguing possibility for the spiritual origins of Passover, and for why the Patriarchs themselves ate matzot long before the Exodus.

Hammurabi, Abraham, and an Eye for an Eye

This week’s Torah reading is Mishpatim, literally “ordinances”, which is primarily composed of legal matters, as its name suggests. One of the most famous Torah phrases is found in this parasha: “you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” (Exodus 21:23-24). In legal terms, this is known by the Latin lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

Most people are well aware of the fact that in Judaism, this verse was never taken literally. It does not mean that if one person poked out the eye of another, then his eye gets poked out in turn. A simple example: what if the person doing the poking out is blind? Then poking out his eye in retaliation wouldn’t accomplish anything! And so, Jewish law is unequivocal on the fact that the Torah verse simply means that the punishment should fit the crime. In most cases, the punishment comes in the form of appropriate monetary compensation. The compensation should include medical expenses, lost wages, and the costs for the damages, both physical and emotional.

The Vilna Gaon had a beautiful way of proving that the Torah never meant retaliation, but financial remuneration instead. In Hebrew, the verse literally says “an eye under an eye” (ayin tachat ayin). The word for eye is עין, where the first letter is “under” (ie. alphabetically before) the letter פ, the second letter is under the letter כ, and the final letter is under ס. The letters above spell כסף, literally “money”. Thus, when the Torah says an eye under an eye, it secretly hints to monetary compensation.

In Roman law, as well, lex talionis referred to financial compensation, and not direct retaliation. However, a more ancient legal system – one that predates both Roman law, and even Jewish law – did indeed use this principle literally. In fact, this legal system phrases the law in a very similar way.

The Code of Hammurabi

In 1901, archaeologist Gustave Jéquier made a monumental discovery while excavating around the ancient Persian city of Susa. A massive stone stele with 44 columns of text written in the ancient Akkadian language. By the following year, the stele had been translated. It was a legal code, composed of 282 laws, dating back almost four thousand years to the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 BCE). The code begins with a brief legendary history of Babylon:

Stele of Hammurabi's Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris

Stele of Hammurabi’s Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris. The top of the stele depicts Hammurabi receiving the laws from his patron god, Marduk.

When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, god of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak…

The text (which can be read in full here) then lists the laws of Hammurabi’s kingdom. It is amazing to see how many laws parallel those of this week’s parasha, among them laws of slavery, theft, and damages. Some are even expressed in similar phrases. Law #196: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”

Who is Hammurabi?

Hammurabi’s code is perhaps the earliest known legal system. In fact, it is one of the oldest pieces of text ever discovered. Incredibly, archaeologists have also uncovered a multitude of tablets and writings from his reign, including as many as 55 of his own letters. And Hammurabi’s greatness goes far beyond these writings.

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Though initially his reign was peaceful, Hammurabi was soon mired in various wars by the aggression of neighbouring city-states. Hammurabi came out on top, and by the end of his reign had unified all the city-states of Mesopotamia under the Babylonian banner. He transformed Babylon into a metropolis and temple-laden holy city, putting it on the map for eternity. Thousands of years later, Jews still refer to the Talmud as the Bavli, the Babylonian (due to its composition in formerly-Babylonian lands, and to distinguish it from the lesser-known Yerushalmi Talmud).

Of course, Babylon also made its way into the Torah. Before there is mention of any of our patriarchs, there is mention of the city of Babylon, with its Tower soaring to the Heavens, and drawing God’s wrath. And it appears that Hammurabi himself made it into the Holy Book.

While “Hammurabi” is an Anglicized name, the king’s name was actually pronounced Ammurapi, or Ammuraphi. In Genesis 14 we read: “And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar…” Shinar is the Biblical name for Mesopotamia (likely stemming from shnei naar, the land between the two rivers, which is the same as the Greek Mesopotamia). Meanwhile, Rashi comments that Amraphel was none other than Nimrod, the great king of Babylon.

The tradition surrounding Nimrod is rich and varied. The Torah says he was a “great hunter before God” (Genesis 10:8) which some interpret to mean that he was a righteous, God-fearing man (Hammurabi’s stele also describes him as God-fearing). Others point out that his name Nimrod means “to rebel”, so he must have been the rebel who built the Tower of Babel in an attempt to conquer the Heavens.

Whatever the case, after the Great Dispersion and the confounding of languages that followed the Tower, Nimrod became Amraphel. His exit from the Torah comes at the hands of Abraham, who miraculously defeated him in the War of the Kings.

Though there is no way to say for sure that Hammurabi is Amraphel, or if he ever encountered Abraham, what we do know is that their lifespans certainly overlapped. The traditional Jewish dating for Abraham’s birth corresponds to the year 1812 BCE, while historical records suggest that Hammurabi was born around 1810 BCE.

Unfortunately, looking back so far into history is often futile, and presents a murky image at best. Perhaps future archaeological discoveries will clear up the past. Alas, for the time being we are left only to wonder about what could have been…

The Origins of Jerusalem and the Priesthood

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s Torah reading is Toldot, featuring the births and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. After twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebecca finally conceive. The pregnancy proves to be a strange one, though, with Rebecca’s restless womb feeling like a battlefield. Rebecca decides to seek the counsel of a prophet to figure out what’s going on. It is revealed that she is carrying twins, each of which will go on to found large nations and kingdoms that will always compete with one another. Even in the womb, they are already struggling for dominance. It is prophesized that ultimately the elder twin (Esau) will serve the younger twin (Jacob).

The Torah is unclear about who it was that made this prophecy. In the simplest sense, it is possible that Rebecca herself received the prophecy directly from God since she, too, was a prophetess like all the matriarchs. However, the accepted tradition (and the one cited by Rashi) is that she went to consult with Shem, the son of Noah.

Shem, or Melchizedek?

Depending on how one reads the verses, Shem must have lived for 600 or 602 years. (In the past, we’ve written of the seemingly impossible lifespans of the pre-Flood generations.) The traditional year for the Flood on the Hebrew calendar (where years are designated with an AM, anno mundi) is 1656 AM, approximately 2104 BCE. Shem was around 100 years old at this time (Genesis 11:10), which means that Shem lived roughly until 2156 AM. Abraham was born in 1948 AM, Isaac in 2048 AM, and Jacob in 2108 AM, so it is a very real possibility that Shem met all three patriarchs.

In the 14th chapter of Genesis, we read about Abraham’s war with the alliance of four kings, headed by Amraphel of Shinar. After defeating the kings, Abraham is greeted by Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Shalem), who is also described as being a priest (kohen). Rashi cites the midrash that Melchizedek is none other than Shem, the son of Noah. How did Shem become Melchizedek?

Back to the Tower of Babel

A few weeks ago we wrote of the Tower of Babel and how this Tower was very different from what people generally think. In the aftermath of the Tower, the people – once all living in a single city, with a single language – were scattered across the Earth, and their languages confounded. Not surprisingly, since their languages had totally changed, their names must have totally changed, too. After all, how could those scattered to, say, China, retain their old Semitic names from a life they no longer had any memory of, and with syllables they could no longer pronounce in their new tongue?

Indeed, Rashi tells us that Amraphel, the king of Shinar – leader of the alliance against Abraham – is the very same person as Nimrod – the king who previously tried to kill Abraham by throwing him into a fiery furnace! Before the Tower, the king was known as Nimrod (in fact, many consider him to be the one who spearheaded the Tower project). Now, after the confounding of languages, he was Amraphel of Shinar. And in the same way, Shem was now Melchizedek of Salem.

The First King of Jerusalem

The Torah tells us that following the Flood, Noah brought sacrificial offerings to God. The midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:6) fills in that it was actually Shem who facilitated the offerings. Upon exiting the Ark, Noah was attacked by a lion and seriously injured, preventing him from performing the sacrificial rites. Shem stepped in, becoming history’s first official priest. He held onto this role for several centuries. Knowing that Jerusalem is the spiritual centre of the world, and God’s chosen site for offerings, Shem settled there. He called the place Shalem, literally “wholeness” and “peace”, and soon became its king as well.

Following Abraham’s war, it is said that Shem, now known as Melchizedek, conferred the priesthood upon him. The priesthood was then passed down from father to son through the special birthright and blessing (as we read in this week’s portion). With the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai, the firstborn of Israel collectively lost their rights to the priesthood, which was now transferred solely to the tribe of Levi, and more specifically, to the descendants of Aaron. To this day, Jews do the pidyon haben ceremony thirty days after the first male child is born, commemorating this transfer of priesthood from the firstborn to the descendants of Aaron.

Meanwhile, Abraham would later ascend Mt. Moriah in the territory of Salem to bind Isaac in the Akedah. Following this test, Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, literally “where God is seen”. The Sages say that since the righteous Shem called the place Shalem, and the righteous Abraham called it Yireh, God did not want to choose one name over the other, and so, combined the two to make Yerushalaim, Jerusalem.

The Return of the Righteous Priest

How the life of Shem-Melchizedek came to an end appears to be a mystery. Some ancient Jewish texts put him in the same league as Elijah and Enoch, two people who are said to have never died, but rather ascended to the Heavens alive. The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) speaks of a “Righteous Priest” who comes at the End of Days, together with Elijah and the two Messiahs: Mashiach ben David, and Mashiach ben Yosef. The midrash identifies this Righteous Priest as Melchizedek. Together, they make up the “Four Craftsmen” prophesized by Zechariah that will finally usher in a new, peaceful world. May we merit to see it soon.

Three Powerful Lessons from Abraham

'Abraham and the Three Angels' by James Tissot

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

This week’s Torah reading is Vayera, which famously begins with Abraham hosting three angels, who go on to prophesy the birth of Isaac, and then to destroy the sinful Sodom and Gomorrah. In this parasha we get a much deeper look into Abraham’s character traits and personality. Of course, there is a great deal to be learned from the first patriarch. His legendary hospitality and kindness (stemming from his root in the mystical sefirah of Chessed, of which we wrote about last year) is already well-known. His empathy and concern for others, too, is often highlighted from this week’s reading where he negotiates with God to spare the people of Sodom. Yet there are several more lessons (among many others) we can draw from the great Abraham.

Dust and Ashes

In the midst of his conversation with God to spare the people of Sodom, Abraham meekly states anokhi afar v’efer, “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). This alludes to the account of creation where God makes man afar min hadamah, from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), and after the Forbidden Fruit, curses man: “from the dust you came, and to the dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

It also reminds of the words of the great sage Akavia ben Mehalalel in the Mishnah (Avot 3:1): “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came? From a putrid drop. Where you are going? To a place of dust, maggots and worms. And before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Rashi comments on Abraham’s words that were it not for God’s salvation, Abraham would have been turned to ashes by Nimrod’s flaming furnace, and to dust by the alliance of armies that warred against him (Genesis 14). Abraham thus addressed God in this humble manner, recognizing that he is in no position to argue against His creator, yet at the same time fulfilling his God-given mandate of being holy, and being like God, Who is ultimately compassionate and graceful. Of course, God comforts Abraham in telling him that had there been fifty righteous people in Sodom, He would not destroy it (or had there been forty-five people for that matter, or forty, or thirty, twenty, or even ten).

All of this is a great lesson in humility. As the Mishnah states, a person should never forget where they come from and where they are going; how short and futile life is; and where they really stand in the grand scheme of this vast universe. However, one should never be self-effacing, nor should a person forget that they are made in God’s image, with an infinite potential to grow, create, and improve their world.

One of the earliest Chassidic leaders, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), said it best: “A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ In the second pocket he should keep the Torah verse: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

Fulfilled Prayers

Later on in the parasha we read what seems like a déjà vu, where the beautiful Sarah is once again abducted by a king, this time Avimelech of Gerar. As a result, Avimelech’s household is plagued by some sort of infertility, or according to others, a curse where all of their orifices were sealed, preventing both excretion and childbirth. The story concludes with Abraham praying for Avimelech and his household, and they are healed. The Torah specifically states that the women were once more able to deliver their babies (Genesis 20:17-18).

The very next verse starts by saying that God “remembered what He had said… and Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham…” Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of verses: since Abraham prayed for Avimelech’s home to be fruitful, so too was his own home made fruitful. The lesson: one who prays for the needs of another, while having the same need, will also have his or her need fulfilled. The key to successful prayer is not constantly begging for one’s own needs, but instead, to focus (sincerely, of course) on the wellbeing of others.

Alacrity

In the final major passage of the parasha we read of the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac”. God commands Abraham to do something that seems both immoral and illogical. To be fair, despite the fact that most people assume God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, the exact Hebrew wording never mentions killing or death, but simply asks Abraham to “elevate” Isaac. Nonetheless, Abraham himself believed God asked him to have Isaac sacrificed, perhaps in the spirit of the day when human sacrifice was common. We cannot imagine how difficult this must have been for Abraham, especially since Isaac was his long-awaited son.

God tells Abraham: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…” (Genesis 22:2). Why the redundancy in wording? Couldn’t God just say “Please take your son” or “Please take Isaac”? Rashi answers by quoting a beautiful midrash: God initially said “Please take your son”. Abraham, knowing where this was probably going, said “I have two sons” (referring to Ishmael, his son from Hagar). God said “your only one”, since by this point Ishmael had been expelled, and it was already clear that Isaac would inherit the Covenant. Abraham replied that, nevertheless, they are both his “only sons” – Ishmael his only son through Hagar, and Isaac his only son through Sarah. So God said “whom you love”, and Abraham quickly replied that he loves both of them. Finally, God explicitly said “Isaac”. Rashi finishes by saying that God rewarded Abraham for each of these expressions, in lovingly trying to avoid the difficult test.

Despite this, the Torah says that Abraham “arose early in the morning” to fulfil God’s test. This is the third time where the exact phrasing is used, describing Abraham as arising early in the morning. It is from this that the tradition of Abraham instituting shacharit, the morning prayer, comes from. Abraham was an early bird, and a diligent man that got all of his work done promptly. This is another great lesson from the first of our forefathers.

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas tells us in the Mishnah (Avot 3:10) that sleeping in in the morning is one of four things that guarantee a person will fail in this world (the others being drinking alcohol in the day, being childish, and spending time in places where ignorant people gather). How can one sleep in when there is so much to be done? So many goals to accomplish, and so many mitzvot to fulfil; so many opportunities to take advantage of, and so much wisdom to study; so many things to explore, so many people to help, and so many lives to change. To end with the words of Rabbi Tarfon (Avot 2:15): “The day is short, and the work is abundant, but the workers are lazy, although there is much reward, and the Master is pressing…”