Doorways into Shemot

Torah portion Shemot (Exodus 1-6:1) [1] contains many events, encounters, titles and words, even sequences of verbs containing truths of life’s structure and divine intention. I will touch on a few of the most salient ones and how, in the case of one vivid incident they relate to a uniquely dispositive parsha, Chukat (“statute”), Bamidbar [2] 19, the parsha of the parah adumah temimah or “perfectly red heifer.”

The core of the parsha (it is likely that the English word “portion” derives directly from the Hebrew) is in chapters 3-4; the incident that links to the mysterious ritual of purification involving the red heifer occurs in 4:6-8 as Moshe questions the Creator and Eternal One, Hashem (“the Name” or as theologians, burying Hebrew content, say in Greek, the ‘tetragrammaton’) as to whether and how the children of Israel, so long enslaved, degraded and out of their rightful place will recognize his mission and the code of remembrance that Joseph gave twice to his brothers in Bereishis (“Genesis”) 50, pakod yifkod, “remember, He will [surely] remember you” echoed in Shemot by pakod pakadti (“remember, I have [indeed] remembered you” 3:16). This activation of the code of remembrance follows immediately upon the Eternal One linking His Name, purpose and identity with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, “this is My Name forever and this is My remembrance from generation to generation” (that is, eternally, for all time). The purification and return will be accomplished through and in their names/identities, the divine force of creation working in their history, qualities and descendants.

But the first incident and principle I wish to address is the moment when Hashem shows Moshe the signs that demonstrate that the Children of Israel will heed his voice and believe his words when he returns to them with the message of a promised deliverance. Hashem shows Moshe two signs: in the first he is told to cast his staff to the ground where it becomes a snake, then told to grasp its tail and it again becomes a staff in his hand (4:2-5). This is principle of reversibility, of return to an original intended and healthy condition is even more explicit in the second sign. There, Moshe is instructed to bring his hand into his bosom and then draw it out whereupon it appears leprous. Told to return his hand into his bosom, when he withdraws it “behold, it reverted to be like his flesh.” The Eternal adds “if they do not heed the voice of the first sign, they will believe the voice of the latter sign.” [Otot, "signs" is all but cognate with letters, otiot; the basic structure of life in Hebraic perception, ways of knowing and expressing. The model is inscriptive, literate and genetic not visual/spectacular and metamorphic as for the Hellenes].

It is noteworthy that the emphasis is on “the voice” of the signs but the aspect on which I wish to focus is the principle of reversibility and passing through a doorway of change the signs seem to demonstrate. The exodus is essentially a threshold event, indeed Pesach literally means “doorway” and a passage to return to a pure or whole condition. So the signs are intrinsic and exemplary of the entire experience of Israel in Egypt from its entering, with its staff so to speak, as shepherds and “cattlemen” (Bereishis 46:32-3) in a condition of wholeness; then undergoing a state of estrangement, sickness and terror adumbrated in the sign, “and Moshe fled from it,” the snake, and returning across the threshold back to its entire wholesome condition (“Jacob was a wholesome [or “perfect”] man dwelling in tents” Bereishis 25:27). Recall that the essential condition of Jacob – Israel is that he is integral, wholesome, perfect (ish tam, “a perfect man”) and that when he extricates himself from his exploitative, deceitful and cruel Uncle Laban and then wrestles with the angel of Esau (whom he compels to confess his stature and first announce that his title is “Israel” Bereishis 32:29). That this condition is emphasized by the Almighty for “Jacob was shaleim [whole, integral, complete, a word related to but more profound than tam] when he returned to Shechem following this struggle and the subsequent encounter with Esau (33:2-17), whose angel had proceeded him in trying to deter and intimidate Jacob from re-entering his inheritance, a resistance that gained macro dimension in Egypt. The sages teach that in Egypt, Israel was at the penultimate, “49th level of impurity” and degradation, urgently in need of a cleansing transformation and passage that later is centered in the chukat of the parah adumah temimah. (Note that the essence of Jacob, tam is the root of temimah). After his sons, led by Shimeon and Levi destroy the Canaanites of Shechem, conquering the city in response to the rape of Dinah, Hashem commands that the entire household sanctify and purify themselves before Jacob receives directly from the Eternal One in His own ‘voice’ the title Israel and the reiteration of the covenant of the forefathers: “the land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you; and to your offspring after you I will give the land” (Bereishis 35:9-13, c.f. 28:13-15). Thus Moshe’s experience with Hashem at the conferral of the signs like the entire sojourn of Israel in Egypt recaps the life of Jacob and foretells the experience of Israel in history: the threshold or doorway principle of crossing over (the experience from which the word and name “Hebrew” derives) from integrity to fear and degradation back to demonstration of majesty and a re-crossing to freedom and sovereignty, acknowledged and proclaimed as the chosen sons, the ‘control group’ of the Almighty for organizing the world toward the possibility of wholeness: “Israel is my firstborn son: send forth My son that he may serve Me!” Shemot 4:22-3).

There is no darkness so crushing or deep, not the darkness of Egypt, nor that of Greece, nor that dread and great darkness of Edom / Rome (Bereishis 15:12) and the nations descending from it, whose glamour and dazzle can long obscure the majesty, clarity, vigor and joy of Israel.

The same principle informs the ‘convertibility’ in the statute of the parah adumah temimah. It is to be burned entire but “outside the camp” and its ashes mixed with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread (perhaps an echo of “the blood of the bridegroom” Shemot 4). The Kohen who performs the ceremony becomes impure, as does the man who gathers the ash and puts it “in a pure place” where it is to be “for water of sprinkling and for purification.” The mixture of the cow’s ash and these other ingredients make impure in preparation and gathering but purify one who has been contaminated by contact with the dead. Israel in Egypt was nearly dead, suffering from faint spirit (ketzer ruach). The principle and a ritual service of reversibility, of going through the doorway of life and death connects with the fundamental threshold of purity and impurity, of inside and outside of light and dark, the first of all the distinctions by which Hashem structured creation. Note that when Moshe wins forgiveness for Israel the Creator states “I will make such distinctions as have never been created in the entire world and among all the nations” (Shemot 34:10). Furthermore, emphasizing that the essence of the Hebrews, the nation of Israel is to be “distinct” and embody the principle of boundaries, coherence and discriminations, Moshe asked that “Your people be made distinct from every people on the face of the earth” (33:16). It is in response to this plea that the Creator speaks of unique distinctions to be created and inscribes them in his ‘thirteen Names of mercy” (34:5-7) a passage that climaxes with remembrance of the Exodus, the core principle of transformation and liberty. The signs of convertibility and threshold shown to Moshe are to instill and evoke faith (emunah) and redemption (geulah) as the essence of freedom and purification. They are matters of inside and outside, of entering and leaving. It is analogous to intercourse between husband and wife, the basic pattern of going in unto and coming out that redeems with seed and reception, emplacing offspring and faith in their continuance in the way. Like the mystery of the crimson thread in Chukat, this may be a clue to explication of the curious incident on Moshe’s return back to Egypt when his wife, Zipporah circumcises their son, Gershom thus saving Moshe’s life. Wiping some blood from the ritual on Moshe’s feet, she proclaims, “a bridegroom’s bloodshed was because of circumcision” (4:24-6). The nature of the bridgegroom, “rejoicing over his bride” is a foundational doorway experience, synonomous with Jews settling and possessing the Land that makes holy, redeems and fulfills covenant, literally with brit while also, like parah aduman temimah, requiring subsequent purification.

It is pertinent that in Bamidbar, immediately after the description of the ritual of purification and its principle of convertibility, that to deal with and effect purification requires that Israel immerse itself again in the core ‘crossings over’ that is its name, history and mission, the entire nation arrives at the territory of Edom. It is a reprise of the encounter in parsha Vayishlach (“and he sent,” Bereishis 33) when Jacob first returns to the center of Israel for reunion with his father and encounters his malicious twin brother and his “four hundred [armed] men.” As when, at his mother Rebecca’s order and with Isaac’s command and blessing to find a wife back in Aram Naharayim, he fled from the homicidal wrath, deceit and envy of Esav to the house of Laban, he avoids the decisive encounter that will usher in the end of the dominion of Esav and the last phase of ‘fallen’ history, the periods that degrade and disguise the identity and place of Israel just as Greco-roman nomenclature and institutions hide the Jewish substrate of the West. In Bereishis, this turning aside from immediate conflict with Esau leads to the Almighty confirming Jacob’s honorific, “Israel” and to reiteration of the covenant of inheritance of the land as noted above. In Bamidbar and parsha Chukat, after description of the ritual whose convertibility marks the doorway or liminal quality of Israel’s character, the nation is rebuffed harshly by Edom and left “poor and parched” like a humble man who cries in the night as the Zohar comments on Tehillim 102, Israel’s condition in exile further elaborated in tractate Sanhedrin 104b in the comments on the stars weeping with those who pray in the night of time. This turning aside from the territory of Esau is followed by mighty victories of the nation of Israel and the definitive encounter, in the next chapter, with Balak, king of Moab who sends for the great sorcerer Balaam to “come and curse Israel for me” (Bamidbar 22:6 ff). There follows the famous episode of Balaam, his donkey and the angel when the sorcerer is put on notice that his greed and malice against Israel already forfeited his life and that no magic, pr or diplomatic-military trickery can abolish the covenant or change the essential nature of Israel. As is well known, after trying three times to curse Israel at Balak’s command, Balaam three times blesses Israel, each time more emphatically, concluding with a vision of Israel’s redemption in the End of Days when it will “rise up like a lion… and Edom will be a conquest and Israel will attain success.” This prophecy is echoed by Ovadiah and Malachi early in his book and is being fulfilled in our day as the West’s myriad games lead its entire glorious civilization to be “consumed in bewildering terrors” (Tehillim 73:19), the very terrors they instigate and by which they seek to rule: which their rulers piously and deceitfully denote as a “War on Terror.” As if written for our very days, the prophecy of the end of the degenerate phase of history dominated by the fictions of Esav ends with “big ships from the coast of Kittim [Rome and the civilization sprung from it] afflicting Assyria and afflict the other [farther] bank,” that is, with the West attacking Aram Naharayim (Mesopotamia-Iraq) and Persia.

It is beyond the scope of this essay and probably my abilities to pursue the intriguing fact that adumah, as in parah adumah temimah is just one letter (a hei and a vav) and one number, 5 to 6, different from Edom, the name and nation of Esav (Bereishis 36:1,8,19,43… A miss is as good as a mile. Esav as I have explained elsewhere is the keruah shalom, the “false” or “broken peace” that only appears, as a pig tries to appear to be kosher by displaying its cloven hooves, like the integrity and wholeness of shaleim whose simple numerical value it shares and whose perfection is the essence of Jacob. The only genuine peace, shalom, emerges from its root, shaleim, the essence, integrity and wholeness of Jacob when he returns to his inheritance from which Esau-Edom repeatedly blocks him; at length, 1700 years ago appropriating the identity and name of Israel to do so. It could not wash…

We have lived to see the beginnings of it and even to glimpse its turbulent end. No doubt the rulers of the West are amused to be repeating the prophetic pattern of the Hebrew Scriptures to suit their perverted ends as gods. But the principle of reversal and purification, the essence of Pesach and Ever, the crossing over, is asserting itself and the massive cleansing and combat described from different perspectives by Ezekiel, Zechariah, Isaiah and the greatest of prophets, Moshe (Devarim 33) is being fulfilled. “Israel, your enemies will try to deceive you, but you will trample their haughtiness!” The very last words of “Moshe, the man of G-d” allude to the ‘Peace Process’ and to the “non-people and vile nation” the West now uses to displace and cripple the Jews. But the cleansing and return to sovereignty of a degraded, subservient and vassal Israel, a Hellenized state of ‘politics,’ ‘democracy’ and ‘the covenant with death” (Isaiah 29) is breaking up like a petrified vessel in mockery of its feeble imitation of the West and is about to pass over a purifying period and again be refined. Then the West will bring it “the wealth of nations” (Isaiah 60). This is the time, the moment in time when full ripeness becomes rot and the threshold is passed. When the fullness of time, b’ita, is accomplished “in its time” and in the blink of an eye and with shai lo (“gifts to him,” that is, Israel) redemption is hastened, achishena; b’ita and achishena are revealed as one unified process that has matured in its time [3]. Just as “God brought him out of Egypt according to the power of His loftiness … He will consume the nations that oppress him [Israel] and crush their bones, and his arrows shall pierce them” (Bamidbar 24:8). We already have seen several examples of this and will see more emphatic and complete, more purifying ones. The principle of convertibility in parsha Chukat, the essence of purification writ large in Pesach and its threshold paradigm is asserted even by the greatest of gentile magicians as the pattern of Israel’s full redemption and return to its place.

1. Note that translations of the Hebrew Scriptures into European languages including English change Hebrew terms and titles into Greek which then, for us, is Anglicized. This is part of the pervasive burial and concealment of Hebrew civilization and wisdom by the Greco-Roman late classical culture that appropriated and deformed the way of Israel (derekh Yehudi) or what the modern world terms “Judaism.” The Hebrew title of the second of the books of Moshe is “Names” as may be seen by the focus on the names of every member of the House of Israel that accompanied Jacob (title, “Israel” or, “he will be God’s commander” – the title/name also could be translated, “upright of God”). This is not simply a list: for the way of Israel, every name has meaning and encodes the qualities and eternal role of a person.
2. “In the Wilderness” called in English “Numbers” because of the count of the nation of Israel given in its first verses. Note how the Hellenic-English confounds the content, import and history of the text.
3. Shakespeare repeatedly used this metaphor and concept, for example in Hamlet 5.3 and in King Lear 5.2 just to mention its explicit statement that is demonstrated at length. Since tehillim (‘psalm’) 102 was cited above as the essence of Israel’s condition in exile, the original of which was in Egypt it is notable that its verses were close to Shakespeare who paraphrases them closely in climactic passages in two of his greatest plays, King Lear (4.6.133-4) and the Tempest (4.1.148-58) among other allusions.

4. In addressing this section of Scriptures one should note the striking sequence of verbs by which G-d ‘recognizes’ and begins the threshold experience and purification of Israel: “God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. God saw the children of Israel, and God knew…” (Shemot 2:24-5). There is a deep lesson about perception, activation and fulfillment in this sequence of particular actions: heard, remembered, saw and…knew” that clearly includes the intimate aspects of experience and knowing noted above. Neruological, experiential-historical and physics-astronomical intertwine in this sequence.

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