Heaven and Earth as Witnesses?
I call heaven and earth to witness (ahd) with you this day.
It does not really seem to make sense – how can heaven or earth be a witness?
The word in question is ahd, and it is found in use with other examples who cannot be witnesses in any legal sense, e.g.
Indeed, these seven ewe-lambs you should take from my hand, so that they may be a witness (ahd) for me that I dug this well.
Come, then, let us make a pact, you [Jacob] and I, that there may be a witness (ahd) between you and me.” Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. … And Laban declared, “This mound is a witness (ahd) between you and me this day.” That is why it was named Gal-ed;
Heaven, earth, sheep and rocks cannot be witnesses!
Could it be that “witness” is not the correct translation? Might “Mental reminder of a connection” be a much better (though unwieldy) fit?
If this is right, then when we look at heaven and earth, we are to remember the verses connected to them? Is this precisely what Avram and Jacob and Laban meant by their sheep and mounds and pillars: the ahd is a reminder of a connection, a meaning where there would not have been one otherwise?
If this is right, then does it explain what an ahdass is as well?
When people do something together, they are called an ahdass, using the very same root word. That assembly is not a unified body of people. Instead, it seems to be a group of people who are connected to each other by sharing something. It is different from am, nation, or kahal, congregation, other words to describe the Israelites. The difference is perhaps subtle, but it sems to be critical. The word ahd is never used to connect things that are the same – here is its first use:
By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until (ahd) you return to the ground.
The word connects things that are on their face different. Could it be that an ahdass is not a unified people: it is instead an agglomerated group who have chosen to do or believe something together?
Is the ahdass of the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because, in that moment, despite our differences, we share common ideas and prayers?
Come and Go?
Near the end of Moses’ life, he says: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer go and come. (Deut 31:2)
Why this turn of phrase? Could it be simply explained by Moses’ daily routine as given earlier in the Torah?
Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand, each at the entrance of his tent, and gaze after Moses until he had come into the Tent. (Ex. 33:8)
As the Hebrew words match, is Moses merely saying that he can no longer manage his daily routine, that he could no longer fulfill his duties?
Where Do We Reach For G-d?
This seems like a simple question, right? G-d is in Shamayim, the heavens, right?
Well, yes. And then again, perhaps not.
Is it possible that we are not meant to look in the heavens? After all:
[The Torah] is not in the heavens [bashamayim], that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
And note that the word bashamayim is only found 9 places in the Torah (Gen 11:4, Ex. 20:4, Deut. 1:28, 3:24, 4:17, 4:39, 5:8, 9:1, 30:12). In almost all of those cases, bashamayim refers to the foolish quest of man to reach the sky!
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens [bashamayim], to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls in the heavens [bashamayim].
Babel and the Amorites reach for the sky, by building upward. Is that our path? In this week’s sedra we learn that, perhaps, we are not supposed to be physically reaching the sky, but instead spiritually doing so….
Compare a synagogue to a cathedral: Other peoples seek to climb to the heavens. The Jewish people do not. We are not competing on the basis of large buildings or physical proximity to the skies. The Torah tells us that we should not even seek to send an emissary to heaven!
[The Torah] is not in the heavens [bashamayim]
Isn’t the Torah telling us that the path to holiness is not to physically reach to heaven? Is it that we are not supposed to go upward, but instead to think upwards?
The clouds in the wilderness seem uniquely tied to Moses and his life:
And the LORD said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
The cloud seems to be in-between, a mediator or buffer, a veil between G-d and the people. When G-d talks to Moses, He does so from inside the cloud.
Why a cloud? Is a cloud a metaphor for G-d, because we know it is there, but we cannot really see, touch, smell, or hear it? A cloud is neither solid not liquid; it is perceptible but indistinct.
Is a cloud in the wilderness a bit like the cover on a Sukkah, the Western Wall, or the veil of a prayer shawl? We can get closer to the spirit on the other side because of that intermediate layer that shields us, forcing us to reach out with non-physical sensitivity?
And yet we are warned to not think the cloud is, in itself, a source of knowledge!
You shall not practice divination or cloud-gazing. (Lev. 19:26)
Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to cloud-gazers and augurs; to you, however, the LORD your God has not assigned the like.
Is this a command to Jews for all time: we are to find G-d in words, never in visual signs, in hearing and not seeing? And if so, does it suggest that the cloud vanishes when Moshe dies, because his level of connection to G-d was never replicated?
This parsha question sheet takes the approach of reading the Chumash very closely. It is assumed that every letter and word has meaning, and all questions can be answered (at least every one we have come up so far!) So you’ll find the questions offered every week are deeply textual, seeking relevance to our lives today from the foundational document for Judaism and indeed all of Western Civilization.
This sheet is distributed with the general approval of Rabbi Rose.
- A BJSZ member