Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Doing the Right Thing

Model of Herod’s Jerusalem with temple, Israel Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

The seventh and last “haftarah of consolation” is read the week before Rosh Hashanah. Like last week’s haftarah, this week’s passage from second Isaiah celebrates a glorious future when the world will revolve around the Israelites and their God in Jerusalem.1

No doubt many Israelites were consoled by the belief that God, who had previously arranged for the Babylonians to conquer and exile them, would soon bless them again. Even today, many individuals who have suffered irreversible losses are consoled by the belief that God works in mysterious ways2 and will be good to them from now on.

I am not one of those people. But this year I found a different consolation in the seventh haftarah of consolation: the word tzedakah.

High priest, detail from bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

This week’s reading uses the word tzedakah five times, starting with:

I certainly rejoice in God!

            My soul exults in my God.

For [God] has clothed me in garments of liberation,

            Has wrapped me in a royal robe of tzedakah,

As a bridegroom puts on a turban like a priest’s

            And as a bride adorns herself with ornaments. (Isaiah 61:10)

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = right behavior, righteousness. (The root verb, tzadak (צָדַק) = was justified, judged rightly, was not guilty, was righteous, was ethical.)3

Tzedakah can mean ethical behavior in general, or it can refer to a particular arena of right behavior. In the Hebrew bible, it most often means justice. In Psalm 112 and modern Hebrew, it means helping the disadvantaged.

In verse 61:10 above, tzedakah is pictured as splendid outer garment provided by God. Perhaps the Israelites who hear that God will rescue them from Babylon find the prophesy as majestic as the robe of a priest or princess, and beautiful as a bride’s adornments.

The next verse elaborates:

For as the earth brings forth her sprouts

            And as a garden sprouts growing plants,

Thus will my lord God sow tzedakah

            And praise, in front of all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11)

All the nations on earth will witness the transformation of the exiled Israelites. Both tzedakah and praise from other nations will flourish.

What does tzedakah mean in this context? The Jewish Publication Society and some other respected translations use the English word “victory” for all five occurrences of the word tzedakah in this week’s haftarah. Translator Robert Alter explained that the primary meanings of words derived from the root verb tzadak have to do with winning a just case in court. The idea of winning came to include winning in battle4 (as long as the winning side is the right side).

The metaphor in Isaiah 60:10 is vague enough so tzedakah can be translated equally well as “victory” or “justice” or even “righteousness”. But in Isaiah 60:11, “victory” does not make sense to me. Why is tzedakah paired with praise? People may praise their own kings or gods for being victorious, but outsiders praise victors only when they need to appease them. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible praise the Babylonians for being victorious!

Furthermore, the metaphor of sprouting plants is a better fit for the growth of good deeds and justice in Jerusalem. People in other nations might well praise the people of Jerusalem for their kindness and justice. After all, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah praise the Persian emperors who replaced the Babylonians because the Persian policies are more ethical and fair to downtrodden populations like the Israelites.

Does God deserve credit for making righteousness sprout in the Israelites? Yes, according to the bible. Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel agree that God let the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem for two reasons: its citizens were unethical in their dealings with other humans, and they worshiped idols. When second Isaiah and Ezekiel prophesy the return of the exiled Israelites to Jerusalem, they say that the people will improve and God will forgive them.

Ezekiel even quotes God as saying:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put into you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your body, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit into you. And I will act [so that] you follow my decrees and my laws; you will observe and do them. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

In short, God will make the Israelites want to be ethical and follow God’s rules. This is how God  sows tzedakah in the Israelites.

The next verse of this week’s haftarah also refers to tzedakah:

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent,

            And for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be quiet,

Until her tzedakah emerges like radiance

            And her rescue burns like a torch. (Isaiah 62:1)

The “her” in “Until her tzedakah emerges like radiance” refers to Jerusalem and its natives. These Israelites will not be responsible for any victory over the Babylonians; that is up to God (who fulfills the prophecy by arranging for the Persians to take over the Babylonian Empire). Therefore “righteousness” or “justice” is a more reasonable translation than “victory” in verse 62:1.

The focus then shifts to God, Jerusalem’s rescuer, addressed as “you”.

And nations will see your tzedakah

            And all kings, your magnificence … (Isaiah 62:2)

What, exactly, will the nations and their kings observe? The Israelites might think of God’s tzedakah as “victory”, since the bible gives God credit for the Persian victory over the Babylonian Empire. But the people and kings of other nations could not be expected to give the God of Israel credit for this victory. If anything, they would attribute it to a/ Persian god; in the Ancient Near East, each god was considered responsible for the fate of its own people.

The most that kings of other nations might notice is that the change of empires allowed the homecoming of the Israelites, who (according to the previous verse) are a manifestly just and righteous people. This much could count as a good deed on the part of the God of Israel.

The fifth time this week’s haftarah uses the word tzedakah is more ambiguous. God is imagined as wearing clothes covered with blood, like a victor in battle:

Gideon and His 300, detail from bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

Who is this coming from Edom,

            In bloody clothes from Bozra?

[Who] is this, splendid in his attire,

            Striding in his abundant power?

“I am one who speaks with tzedakah,

            Abundant for rescuing.” (Isaiah 63:1)

The blood in this image does identify God as a victor in war. Nevertheless, given all the occurrences throughout the bible of tzedakah as justice or right behavior, God could be “one who speaks with justice” or “one who speaks about ethics”, and provides many rescues to carry out justice—even if some of the rescues are bloody.

The final “haftarah of consolation” is read on the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Sunday evening this year. During Rosh Hashanah services, Jews pray to be “inscribed in the Book of Life” for the next year, a theme that continues ten days later on Yom Kippur, when we beg God to forgive is for all our ethical shortcomings.

For me, this is another reason to read this week’s haftarah in terms of tzedakah as right behavior, rather than in terms of victory in war.

The idea of tzedakah also comforts and consoles me for my mother’s death. I went out of my way to do everything I could to lovingly help her this past year, despite various difficulties. Whatever other ethical shortcomings I have, I know I am not guilty in that area of life. And I thank God for the strength to do the right thing. 

I wish all of my readers a good new year, a shanah tovah of life and tzedakah—whenever the year begins for you!

  1. For more on this haftarah reading, see my post Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Power of Names.
  2. See my post Psalm 73: When Good Things Happen.
  3. In the bible, a tzadik (צַדִּיק, also from the root tzadak) is a just or ethical person. In Chassidic writings, a tzadik is a spiritual master, a man who devotes himself to Torah study in order to come close to God. The Chassidic movement within Judaism began in the 17th century, and emphasizes passionate attachment to the divine.
  4. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 2, Prophets, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019, p. 776, footnote on 45:25.
  5. The founder of the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, established policies allowing former exiles to return to their homes, allowing the people in each province to rebuild the shrines and temples of their own religions, and instituting limited self-government in provinces—including the province of Judea.

2 thoughts on “Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Doing the Right Thing

  1. and back to you Melissa and Will. May you continue in the new year to be filled with learning and inspiration to share that learning with the larger community. May all the works of your hand be a Blessing

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