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Contrasting Questions, Different Relationships

Rabbi Sacks has pointed out that Judaism is the only primary faith that encourages questioning and even arguing with G-d, as Avraham and Moshe did on multiple occasions.

My study partners and I were struck this week by the realization that the Torah uses a certain pun to illustrate the contrast between Judaism and the pagan faiths of the day – and it, too, centers around the issue of questions.

The word in question is bamah. A mere three letters, it appears only eight times in the Torah. And the first three are in the form of questions, because these three letters translate into “How?”

The first one is Avram querying G-d:

And he said, “O lord G-d, how [bamah] shall I know that I am to possess [the land]?” (Gen. 15:8)

G-d answers this question, but only in the murkiest of forms: The Covenant Between The Parts. Nevertheless, there is a question, and then there is some kind of an answer, as allegorical as it assuredly is.

The next time bamah is found is when G-d is commanding that we must be kind, even to someone who has put their shirt in hock for a debt:

If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets; it is the only available clothing—it is what covers the skin. In what else [bamah] shall [your neighbor] sleep? Therefore, if that person cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:25-6)

Bamah in this case is used within a rhetorical question. It is also a connection – showing both the connection between G-d and man, as well as the importance G-d puts toward people being thoughtful and considerate to one another. Bamah is used to connect, not divide. The question leads to a closer relationship.

The third questioning bamah is a challenge Moses issues to G-d:

And [God] said, “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden.” And [Moses] replied, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. For how [bamah] shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” (Ex. 33:16)

Like Avram’s use of bamah, Moses is using the word bamah to challenge G-d, to force Him to build up the relationship in order to gain assurances, a sense of confidence within the people that G-d is invested for the long haul. In response, G-d agrees to Moses’ demand that G-d will lead the people and not abandon us.

Note the theme: questions, with answers. Conversation, and building trust between the parties. And all of it is done with nothing more or less than words.

Then the Torah does a hard turn. Bamah from this point on refers to places of idol worship:

And I will destroy your high places [bamah]s, and cut down your images, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you. (Lev. 26:30)

For fire went forth from Heshbon,
Flame from Sihon’s city,
Consuming Ar of Moab,
The lords of the heights [bamah] of the Arnon (Num: 21:28)

You shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their carved and molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places [bama]. (Num. 33:52)

It is not uncommon for words in the Torah to do double duty, but it is also never a coincidence. That the word for a constructive question that builds relationships is also the word for places for pagan idol worship is not accidental. The Torah is telling us something significant: that there is a fundamental contrast found in this word, a contrast between Judaism and the faiths that worship nature.

We might think of it this way: paganism relies on a hard separation between man and the gods, one that can never be breached. To a pagan’s thinking, the forces of nature are beyond our understanding, with power that must be acknowledged but cannot be understood (it is no surprise that studying chemistry, physics and biology were all pioneered in non-pagan cultures). The implicit question that is bamah is never answered, or even answerable within paganism, so instead of being made of words, a pagan bamah is a permanent physical space, a perpetual gap. To a pagan, there is no answer for the capriciousness of the gods: we must simply accept that we are like ants to them.

I mentioned that the word bamah is found eight times, but we have only discussed six so far. As we mentioned, the first three times are as questions, and the next three times refers to the relationship idolaters have with their deities. But the last two connect Jews to those pagan idolatries!

[God] set them atop the highlands [bamah],
To feast on the yield of the earth;
Nursing them with honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock. (Deut. 32:13)

And

Who is like you,
A people delivered by G-d,
Your protecting Shield, your Sword triumphant!
Your enemies shall come cringing before you,
And you shall tread on their backs [bamah] (Deut. 33:29)

These examples put the Jewish people over the bamah. We supersede the barriers that pagans have put between man and the gods, because, as the Torah is telling us, we are able to cross the gap to properly connect with the divine.

Paganism is built on the unbridgeable gap between man and the gods. Judaism is built on the connection that can be built between G-d and man.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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