Moses, by Michaelangelo
Have you ever heard someone say: "Those people still think Jews have horns!!"
It's an image that has become the iconic expression of ignorant anti-semitism. We consider that a person who "still thinks Jews have horns" is a person who lives in such an isolated, ignorant world that they have never met a Jewish person.
It's an anti-semitic image that has been around for a very long time. But where did it come from?
Amazingly enough, this negative image that has plagued Jews for centuries is rooted in bad translation!
In this week's Torah portion, the Israelites are in the wilderness waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. God and Moses have been in "executive session" for forty days and nights, and the people are getting nervous. When Moses returns, the Torah reports:"And the children of Israel saw that "karan" the face skin of the Moses' face."
וְרָאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה, כִּי קָרַן, עוֹר פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה
The key is the word קרן / karan. The correct translation is the past tense verb, "shone" . . . but at some point along the way, someone mis-translated the word as the noun "keren" meaning "horn." Hence, Moses . . . and by association, Jews . . . have horns.
But Moses' face was infused with light from his proximity with God during the revelation of the Torah. This imagery is one of our most elevating legacies from Moses . . . we, too, can be infused with light in the presence of God and in our engagement with Torah.
So, we may not have horns . . . but we do have light!
This week, as we read the opening verses of the Torah, the biblical account of creation, we hope to find insight into the most fundamental questions of existence: what are we doing here? Why did God create at all? Why is there illness and natural disaster and evil if God is all good?
For a long time, now, I've found some sense, if not complete reassurance and comfort, in a specific reading of these opening passages of Breishit/Genesis which I thought I'd share with you as we embark on Shabbat Breishit of our new year 5773:
Most rabbis and biblical scholars will acknowledge that translation is, in large part, commentary. For all that we understand biblical Hebrew quite well, there is often ambiguity in the language canonized as sacred text . . . ambiguity that challenges us and encourages us to bring our own questions and our own insights to the text. That kind of inquiry leads to inspiring and engaging commentary. The tools of etymology and cultural and social history help us get closer and closer to what may have been the original intent of the text as preserved and transmitted to us.
So let us look at the first two verses of the Torah:
א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָֽיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְח֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם:
If you were asked to recite this passage in English, you would probably begin: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . . " This is a reasonable translation that was well-established in English translations for decades.
I invite you to read this version of these verses from the highly regarded Jewish Publication Society revised translation from 2000:
"When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said, "Let there be light."
More evocative still is Everett Fox's brilliant translation (1995) which reflects Professor Fox's commitment to the sources of biblical translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, developments in biblical scholarship since then, and great sensitivity to the literary profundity of biblical Hebrew. The Fox translation reads:
"At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters--God said: Let there be light!"
Both the JPS translation and the Fox translation reflect a reading of the Hebrew which denies a popular, if perhaps mistaken, belief, that nothing existed before God's first act of creation except for God. Here we read that an "unformed and void" earth or an earth of "wild and waste" existed at the time God began to create. There was "a deep" or Ocean, there was darkness . . . . I am left with the impression of a state of seething chaos.
The nature of the passages which follow embody God's purpose, in my reading of God's creating acts: What follows is an orderly and patterned progression:
God speaks, creates through speaking, names, evaluates, seals each day with setting sun and dawning day and continues the pattern.
Inexorably, painstakingly, a grid of order is imposed on the wild waste and seething chaos that preceded the first act of creation. God created to impose order on the "tohu vavohu" on the unformed void, the wild waste.
When I am confronted with the destructive and frightening effects of randomness: severe illness, hurricanes and sunamis and earthquakes . . . I sense that somehow that premordial chaotic wildness and void seething under the order of God's creation has somehow found a gap in the interstices of the grid and has spurted its venomous chaos into our lives.
We depend on the orderliness of God's creation to move through the world with any confidence. We orient ourselves through the predictable progressions of morning, noon and night, of recurring seasons. Indeed, we end our day with a blessing, praising God the creator for the comforting reassurance of this order: "You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Eternal God, Your rule shall embrace us forever . . ."
For all the uncertainty in our lives, this week's Torah reading comes to reassure us of the eternal presence of God, our Rock in the face of the randomness of life.
This week's parasha/Torah portion includes a passage that has become iconic for all people engaged in a relationship with God, and that has particular significance for those of us in the Conservative/Masorti denomination of Judaism.
In the biblical account of this moment, Moshe is shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Yitro/Jethro in Midian. Out in the middle of nowhere, Moshe is drawn to an astonishing sight:
"And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire's flame from inside a bush. And he looked, and here: the bush was not consumed! And Moses said, 'Let me turn and see this great sight. Why doesn't the bush burn!?'" (Shmot/Exodus 3:2-3)
Back in the 15th chapter of Breishit/Genesis, in the evocative moment of covenant between God and Avram, we are first introduced to the association of God's presence with flame: "And the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke and a flame of fire that went between the pieces [of animals, echoing an ancient near-eastern treaty ceremony]. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram...." (Breishit/Genesis 15:17-18)
This same association will recur as God guides the progeny of Israel through the wilderness with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.
In our parashah this week, the connection is firmly established: "And God saw that he turned to see. And God called to him from inside the bush, and He said: 'Moshe, Moshe.'
And he said: 'I'm here.'" (Sh'mot/Exodus 3:4)
How can we interpret this intense image of the bush that is not consumed? God's presence is the flame and the bush represents our world: rooted in the earth, organic and mortal. As God's presence infuses the earthly bush, the bush is illuminated, elevated, enlivened . . . but it is not burned up even when filled with God's presence. Here is an irresistible image of encouragement for those seeking to engage God in the real world . . . which is precisely the passion of Conservative Judaism: living in the real, modern, multi-faceted world informed by the wisdom of Jewish tradition and a passion for finding God around us.
Those who established our Conservative movement over a century ago, turned to this same iconic image of the burning bush to express their conviction that their evolving approach to Jewish life in America would similarly embody the eternity and passion and symbiosis of the burning bush. Indeed, a beautiful relief of that image adorns the front of the Jewish Theological Seminary building . . . which is the photograph on the left below.
As you can see, the theme of the flame, associated with God's presence and the light of Torah, is a consistent theme in the logos of our movement's major organizations. This week's parashah is "home base" for those of us who consider ourselves Conservative/Masorti Jews.
When I return to our "home base" image of the burning bush, I am recharged by the promise of that image: I am reminded again that God's presence is not only inextricably part of Creation, of that organic, mortal world I inhabit, but that the fact of God's presence is meant to generate heat and light. The heat of passion for my people and my tradition. The light of Torah as cast by God.
Parashat Tetzaveh Torah Reading: Exodus 27:20-30:10
In this week's Torah reading we continue to follow the account of the consecration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that would serve as the focal point of Israelite religion through the years of wandering in the wilderness. Through korbanot/sacrifices, God and the people would be drawn closer to each other.
An essential element of the Mishkan is the menorah, the lamp. God instructs Moses: "Command the people of Israel to bring to you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, tokeep a lamp burning continually." The Neir Tamid, the eternal lamp that burns over every ark in every synagogue around the world is our fulfillment of this very verse.
Light is a powerful symbol of God's presence in our lives. The Israeli poet Shifra Alon helps us to treasure this divine light:
Not every day do we encounter God,
not every time is opportune for prayer,
not every hour one of grace.
We fail and fail again till journey's end.
We turn back only to lose our way
and grope in search of long
But God, holding a candle,
looks for all who wander,
all who search.
No matter how dark any given part of our journey may be, remember that God, "holding a candle," looking for all who search, is there to help us light our way. May you feel the warmth and embrace of God's light whenever you seek it.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.