Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Poetic License… or Profound Insight?

 

Ancient texts have no shortage of cool phrases; think of Homer’s “rose-fingered dawn” or “swift-footed Achilles.” There is really not much depth of meaning to be found in such examples, as they are clearly there for the rhyme and the mnemonic.

I submit that the Torah’s use of similarly “styled” language is not an epithet or other normal literary device, that instead the text means something very specific and much more intriguing. In this case, I’d like to look at a phrase found sometimes when someone dies: The text says that the person is “gathered to his/your/their people.” 

This seems straightforward enough if it were an epithet or euphemism: someone has died. Simple, right?

It is not so simple. For starters, the text gives us the straight story anyway – that someone has died: “[Avraham] breathed his last and died, old and contented, and was gathered to his people.” (Gen. 25:8). Similar language is used for Isaac: “So Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people, being old and full of days.” (Gen. 35:29) If “gathered to his people” means merely that Avraham and Isaac died, then why the extra phrase?

To make things more complicated: the two-words for “gathering” (asaf) and “the nation” (am) is used in one occasion about someone who is NOT dead: Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aharon, is gathered back to the people after a brief exile in Numbers 12:15. Which tells us that there is something else going on here. Indeed, it also suggests that “gathered back to the people” is not a way of describing an afterlife, either – since she was living.

The first place a word is used in the Torah tells us what it means. The word for “gathered,” asaf, is first found in the story of Noach.

For your part, take of everything that is eaten and gather it, to serve as food for you and for them. (Gen, 6:21)

The usage of the word here is also duplicative – if something has been taken, it has already been separated. But the context makes it clear: things that are “gathered” are afterward absorbed, to sustain life.

When we take this insight, and see where the word for “gathered” is twinned with “to the people,” we see that the phrase is not used to describe many people: it is limited to the forefathers Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then Miriam (when she was living), Aaron, and Moses. What makes these particular people different than everyone else in the Torah? The answer is that these are the people who are most important to every Jew. To be a Jew is to learn the Torah that Moshe brought; to learn from and seek to emulate our forefathers Avraham, Isaac and Jacob; and to internalize the path to holiness that is shown through Aaron the high priest. And it is to experience the love that Miriam infused into the whole people, the embodiment of kindness and devotion.

In other words: through the Torah, each of these people gained immortality because their influence transferred upon their death (or during the life of Miriam), to all of their people in the future! Those who are “gathered to their people” are vested in each of us, providing spiritual sustenance just as surely as Noach provided sustenance for the occupants of the Ark. To be gathered to one’s people is not to die; it is to gain reputational immortality.

This is the only way I can otherwise explain why Avraham was also described as being “gathered to his people” when he died in Genesis 25:8. At the time he died, Avraham had no people! But every monotheistic faith came from him – he was the father of Judaism and Christianity and Islam and others. When he was “gathered to his people,” Avraham became vested in the future nations that claimed him as their forefather.

When Jacob died, he knew that he would be gathered to his people, that his life of choices was over but that his influence over the Jewish people would be eternal – we describe Jacob as a flame that never goes out. So when the text tells us (Gen 49:33) that Jacob was “gathered to his people,” it does so before Jacob was buried, before anyone even mourned. The instant that Jacob died, his life and his soul became vested in all of the Jewish people.

When it comes to Aharon and Moshe, G-d does not even tell them that they are going to die: instead He tells them that they will “be gathered to his people.” (Numbers 20:24, 31:2). At the end of the Torah (Deut. 32:50), G-d says to Moshe, “You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin.”

“Being Gathered” is not a threat. Being gathered to your people, achieving immortal influence over countless descendants, is actually a promise – a promise of love and satisfaction in a life well lived. It is an aspiration for us all.

All the meanings and power of this phrase is encompassed the last time the phrase is used in the Torah:

Moses charged us with the Torah, as the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. Then He became King in Jeshurun when the heads of the people gathered: the tribes of Israel together. (Deut. 33:4-5)

The connection is multifaceted at this point. The “He” who became King in Jeshurun can refer to the previous nouns – Moses or Jacob – as well as to G-d, since Moses and Jacob are the core embodiments of Judaism. It is another timeless, invested promise of what happens when the nation gathers. When the heads of the people gathered, the unified nation at the receiving of the Torah becomes vested in all of the Jewish people for all time in the future.

In the Torah, “being gathered to one’s people” is no rhetorical device or euphemism. It is instead the highest form of praise, a statement that these few great men are more alive to us now than they were when their hearts were still beating.

 

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

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  1. Arahant Member

    Interesting. There were also men named Asaph.


    Asaph, a’-saph (Heb.)–collector; gatherer; harvester; assembler.

    The name of several Israelitish men. Most of them were men of note; some were Levites (I Chron. 9:15; 26:1; Neh. 2:8); one of them was the man whom David and Solomon appointed to oversee the song services in the Temple worship (I Chron. 6:39; Psalms 50 and 73 to 83 are attributed to him); another was a recorder in Hezekiah’s reign (II Kings 18:18).

    Meta. The Asaph who had charge of the song services in the Temple worship represents the gathering together (collector, gatherer, assembler) of the thoughts and forces of man through his concentrating in I AM, the spiritual center and true directive power, thus establishing harmony and all the healing, rejoicing, uplifting elements of constructive music.

    Asaph the recorder refers to the memory, or subjective consciousness, wherein all the records of past thought processes and experiences are assembled and kept.

    The other men named Asaph represent the gathering together of the thoughts and forces for harmonizing and upbuilding purposes.

    • #1
    • July 14, 2020, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Interesting. There were also men named Asaph.

    A renowned teacher and very dear friend is named Assaf.


    Asaph, a’-saph (Heb.)–collector; gatherer; harvester; assembler.

    Asaph the recorder refers to the memory, or subjective consciousness, wherein all the records of past thought processes and experiences are assembled and kept.

    The other men named Asaph represent the gathering together of the thoughts and forces for harmonizing and upbuilding purposes.

    This harmonizes with my piece beautifully! Thank you!

    • #2
    • July 14, 2020, at 8:35 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  3. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A friend of mine (the great YY) added:

    If I may add a point: “asaf” is indeed something intended to be absorbed, but it does not happen automatically. Those who have the gathered material must then make use of it (eat it) in order that it may have its intended effect.

    We must labor to apply the inheritance of Abraham, Yaakov, and Moshe, then, they will truly be with us.

    • #3
    • July 14, 2020, at 8:38 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    All the perspectives come together.

    • #4
    • July 14, 2020, at 9:39 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Sisyphus Coolidge
    Sisyphus Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This would resonate with the broader religious context, as well. Ancestor worship and similar views of ancestor-related spiritual thinking that are at least as old as writing view death as joining the ancestors. There are people I know who, in the grand religion bazaar of modern America, have effectively landed right back in ancestral spirit basket.

    It is always a wonder just how rich the connections and the underlying literary threads are when drilling down on the Hebrew. I have no gift for it myself, I was especially daunted by the forty plus definitions attached to the phoneme we translate as repent. 

    Thank you.

    • #5
    • July 14, 2020, at 9:50 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fascinating. 

    Do you have an opinion on Steinbeck’s commentary on the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden?

    http://timshel.org/timshel.php

     

     

    • #6
    • July 15, 2020, at 11:04 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    J. D. Fitzpatrick (View Comment):

    Fascinating.

    Do you have an opinion on Steinbeck’s commentary on the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden?

    http://timshel.org/timshel.php

     

    Thanks – I just read it. The word in question is “timshal” – the root word is the same one used for the heavenly lights, that they should “dominate” the day and night respectively. (Gen 1:16 and 1:18). It is used again in 3:16 – that Eve’s husband shall “rule over” her. So the word definitely means domination in some form.

    It is the prefix, the “Taf” that is different in this word. Instead of the future tense, the letter is an instruction, like a command. (use in Gen. 1:11 “[command] the earth sprout vegetation.” So G-d is not telling Cain that “You will” OR “You might” triumph over sin. Instead, G-d is telling him, “you should” overcome the inclination to sin. In closing, I think Steinbeck is right: we can choose to overcome evil and sin, or we can choose to give in to them (as Cain does); there is nothing inevitable over triumphing over evil.

    G-d is telling Cain he has free will, but G-d’s preference is that man makes the right decisions.

    Note that this is the first mention of Sin in the Torah (not the eating of the fruit).

     

    • #7
    • July 16, 2020, at 6:30 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    J. D. Fitzpatrick (View Comment):

    Fascinating.

    Do you have an opinion on Steinbeck’s commentary on the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden?

    http://timshel.org/timshel.php

     

    Thanks – I just read it. The word in question is “timshal” – the root word is the same one used for the heavenly lights, that they should “dominate” the day and night respectively. (Gen 1:16 and 1:18). It is used again in 3:16 – that Eve’s husband shall “rule over” her. So the word definitely means domination in some form.

    It is the prefix, the “Taf” that is different in this word. Instead of the future tense, the letter is an instruction, like a command. (use in Gen. 1:11 “[command] the earth sprout vegetation.” So G-d is not telling Cain that “You will” OR “You might” triumph over sin. Instead, G-d is telling him, “you should” overcome the inclination to sin. In closing, I think Steinbeck is right: we can choose to overcome evil and sin, or we can choose to give in to them (as Cain does); there is nothing inevitable over triumphing over evil.

    G-d is telling Cain he has free will, but G-d’s preference is that man makes the right decisions.

    Note that this is the first mention of Sin in the Torah (not the eating of the fruit).

     

    Fantastic. It’s amazing how much depends upon differences in modal helping verbs. I really like knowing that it should be “should” instead of “may.” 

    And your comment on the fruit reminds me of how tricky that story about the garden of Eden is. 

    • #8
    • July 17, 2020, at 5:48 PM PDT
    • 2 likes