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.

Haftarat Ki Tavo—Isaiah: The Place

For seven weeks after Tisha Be-Av (the fast day to mourn the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem), Jews read a “haftarah of consolation” from second Isaiah. This week, the sixth haftarah of consolation does not even mention consolation or comforting. Only once does it refer to mourning:

Fourth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Your sun will not set again

            And the moon will not be taken away.

For God will be your everlasting light,

And the days of your mourning will be done. (Isaiah 60:20)

 

 

The mourning will be over because all of Jerusalem’s people will return to their city-state, and all the other nations of the world will honor them, serve them, and bring them fabulous wealth.

The consolation in the sixth week’s haftarah, then, is the promise that all the suffering of the Israelites under the thumb of the Babylonians will end, and the people (or at least their descendants) will live happily ever after.

Will this happen after a certain number of years or centuries, or after a certain condition has been met? In other chapters, second Isaiah1 reminds the Israelites that they must return to God before God will return Jerusalem to them. In Isaiah 60, the prophet does not worry about any conditions.

Instead of a time frame, this prophesy is attached to a place: Jerusalem. Furthermore, Jerusalem’s future triumph is the triumph of the God of Israel, not just of the Israelites who live in God’s city.2 God elaborates:

Your gates will always be open;

            Day and night, they will not shut—

To let the wealth of nations come into her [Jerusalem],

            And their kings will be leading the processions. (Isaiah 60:11)

The Caravan, by Charles Theodore Frere, 1888

The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you:

            Juniper, fir, and cypress together,

To beautify the makom of my holy sanctuary,

            And I will honor the makom of my feet. (Isaiah 60:13)

makom (מָקוֹם) = place, location.

God’s “footstool” is either the temple in Jerusalem, or the city itself, according to Psalms 99:5 and 132:7, Lamentations 2:1, and 1 Chronicles 28:2.3

Since the second destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt, and a mosque has been erected where the temple once stood. But the prophecy by second Isaiah in the sixth haftarah of consolation has never come true. For a small minority of Jews, it remains an aspiration. For others, it is a potent symbol. For almost two thousand years, Jews have ended celebrations of Passover and Yom Kippur by shouting: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

It is a joyful shout. The idea of Jerusalem gives many people comfort.


My husband and I finally went to Jerusalem in 2020. We stayed there for three weeks, until the Covid pandemic forced us to choose between taking one of the last airplanes to the United States, or making aliyah and applying for permanent residency in Israel. We flew home.

This week I am in need of comfort and consolation for a personal reason: my mother died recently, a few days after we celebrated her 93rd birthday with her. She was in hospice, so her death was neither a surprise nor a tragedy. But I am aware of the void in my life, and my own fragility.

How could I write a new blog post the week after my mother died? According to Jewish tradition, I should stay home for seven days of mourning (shiva)3 and refrain from “labor”4 (including writing) and from reading the five books of Torah or the Prophets.5 During this time, my Jewish community should visit me so I can say a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish, which requires ten witnesses. But I have no Jewish community where I live now, a two-hour drive away from my Jewish friends in Portland. My mother requested cremation rather than a funeral, so the first time I recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for her, I had to do it during a service on Zoom. My greatest comfort these days is the patient help and support of my husband. But I am also comforting myself by doing what I love most: reading and writing about Torah. Yes, I need to keep remembering my mother, who she was when I was growing up and who she was in old age. But I also need to keep remembering who I am.


If I were “sitting shiva” during these seven days, my Jewish friends would come to my home and recite the traditional condolence to a mourner:

Hamakom yenachem etchem betokh she-ar aveilei tziyon viyerushalayim.

May hamakom comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

hamakom (הַמָּקוֹמ) = the place.

This expression reminds mourners that they are not alone; the death of relatives and friends is part of life—even in Jerusalem, where those walking on the Temple Mount during the time of the second temple greeted mourners with the words “May the one who dwells in this house comfort you.”6

The temple was considered the dwelling-place of God. Thus God is the true source of comfort. An earlier Talmud tractate records the blessing: Blessed is the comforter of mourners.7

Thus in the words of condolence spoken during the past millennia, hamakom is as a name for God, a name that does not appear in the bible.

The idea of Jerusalem does not comfort me. But the idea of God as a makom of consolation does. Somewhere in each soul is a place of connection to the  reality before words.


  1. Chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah were written in the 8th century B.C.E. Chapters 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah” or “deuteron-Isaiah” were written after the Babylonian conquest in 587 B.C.E.
  2. The books of Exodus through Deuteronomy forecast a single nation of Israel consisting of the descendants of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel. The two books of Samuel describe the unification of much of Canaan under kings David and Solomon. In 1 Kings, the united kingdom of Israel splits into two kingdoms after Solomon’s death in the 10th century B.C.E. The northern kingdom is called Israel or Samaria, and its capital is Samaria; the southern kingdom is called Judah, and its capital is Jerusalem. When the Assyrians conquered Samaria in 722 B.C.E., many of its people fled to Judah. Biblical books written during the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E. refer to Jerusalem as the once and future capital of the people who are again called Israelites.
  3. See my post Haftarat Ki Tavo—Isaiah: A Place for Feet. Also see Psalm 26:8, which refers to “the makom of the dwelling-place of your glory”.
  4. The seven days of formal mourning, called “sitting shiva”, begin immediately after the burial. The end of the burial is also when Jewish mourners begin saying the prayer called the  Mourner’s Kaddish, which requires ten witnesses.
  5. Semachot 5. Semachot, originally called Evel Rabati, is a late (eighth-century C.E.) Talmudic tractate.
  6. Semachot 6.
  7. Semachot 6.

 

Haftarat Shoftim—Isaiah: Drunk on Rage

How do you console people who have been vanquished?

Babylonians besiege Jerusalem, 10th-cent. French ms.

This week Jews read the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy, accompanied by the fourth “haftarah of consolation”1 from second Isaiah (chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah, a collection of prophecies given after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.).

This week’s haftarah of consolation opens with God saying:

I, I am the one who comforts you.

            Who are you that you fear a mortal, who must die,

                        A human, who is like grass?

And you forget God, your maker,

            Who stretches out the heavens and establishes the earth!

And you are constantly terrified all day

            By the rage2 of the oppressor, as he prepares ruin.

But [after that] where is the rage of the oppressor? (Isaiah 51:12-13)

Nebuchadnezzar II with ziggurat, Babylonian stele, 6th cent. BCE

The oppressor of the Judahites was the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who conquered Judah and exiled its leading citizens to Babylon. Yet the king and his generals did not necessarily feel anger toward the people of Judah; their strategic decisions for expanding the Babylonian Empire were probably cold-blooded. However, when an army is seizing one’s country through battles and sieges, it feels like a violent attack of rage.

By pointing out that all humans die, God encourages the Judahites to believe that even the Babylonian Empire and its apparent rage will pass away.

After a few verses reminding the exiles from Judah that God has sheltered them in the past and has the power to do it again, God says:

Wake up, wake up! Rise up, Jerusalem,

            Who drank from God’s hand the cup of rage;

The chalice cup of the tareilah

            You drank to the dregs. (Isaiah 51:17)

tareilah (תַרְעֵלָה) staggering, reeling, shaking uncontrollably.

Here the haftarah refers to the rage of God. Often the Hebrew Bible depicts God as smiting people in fury. After all, a lot of people are killed by war, disease, and famine; and according to the bible, God controls all those things. No wonder the bible paints God as a violent and abusive father with no anger management skills. When God has a fit of rage, the people must drink whatever God gives them. Naturally they feel terrified.

A drinking cup of the Achaemenids, who took Babylon in 539 BCE

In this week’s haftarah, the “cup of rage” might also refer to the answering rage of the Judahites, as they react to the apparent rage God by feeling their own anger at a God that has no compassion for them.

The Judahites drink the cup of rage, down to the dregs. And their own fear and rage incapacitate them. Both their bodies and their minds are tareilah, reeling and quivering, out of control.

Tareilah is a rare word in the Hebrew Bible; outside of this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah, it appears only in Psalm 60, in which the poet reminds God:

You made your people experience hardship,

          You made them drink the wine of tareilah! (Psalm 60:5)

A word related to tareilah appears in the book of Zechariah, when God says:

“Hey! I made Jerusalem a bowl of ra-al for the peoples all around, and [the ra-al] will also be for Judah, because of the siege on Jerusalem. … Her burden will certainly damage all the nations of the earth, and they will gather against her. On that day,” said God, “I will strike every horse with confusion and its rider with madness …” (Zechariah 12:2-4)

ra-al (רַעַל) = staggering, quivering; poison. (From the same root as tareilah. It occurs only two more times in the bible.3)

The book of Zechariah was written after the Babylonians were defeated by the Achaemenid Persians, but before any of the exiled Judahites returned to Jerusalem to take advantage of the Persian policy of limited self-government for provinces.4 Zechariah claims that everyone in the lands surrounding Judah has been going mad since the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. He warns that any further war against Judah will turn into chaos.

Before Zechariah, Jeremiah delivered a similar prophecy while the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem:

The Land of Cockaigne, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567

Thus said God, the God of Israel, to me: “Take the cup of the wine of rage from my hand, and make all the nations to which I am sending you drink it! … And you shall say to them: “Thus said God of Hosts, God of Israel: Drink and get drunk and vomit and fall down! And you will not rise up, because of the edge of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:15, 17)

In Psalm 60, Zechariah, and Jeremiah, people are completely helpless once they drink the cup of rage. Overwhelmed by their fear of God’s rage, and perhaps by their own answering rage, they stagger and shake, reel, vomit, and fall down.

Yet in Isaiah 51:17, God urges the people who have drunk the cup of rage:

Wake up, wake up! Rise up, Jerusalem,

            Who drank from God’s hand the cup of rage!”

How can they “wake up” from their tareilah?

The bible often refers to Jerusalem as a woman. But if she is a mother, she has no children who can help her get up.

There are none carefully leading [Jerusalem],

            Out of all the children she bore.

And there are none holding her hand

            Out of all the children she brought up. (Isaiah 51:18)

Soon we learn why Jerusalem has no “children” to help her up and lead her. At the end of the siege, everyone in the city who is not rounded up and marched off to Babylon lies faint with starvation, wounded by Babylonian weapons, or dead.

Your children have fainted;

            They lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net,

Glutted with the rage of God,

            The rebuke of your God. (Isaiah 51:20)

In other words, all the people of Jerusalem are dead or incapacitated in some way, and therefore they cannot help one another to wake and rise up. In this verse the rage of God is the “rebuke” God delivers through the Babylonians in order to pay back the Judahites for worshiping other gods and failing to follow God’s ethical rules.

Does the punishment (death, incapacitation, and tareilah) fit the crime (cheating on God and cheating the poor)? Second Isaiah never questions it.

Therefore listen, please, to this, wretched one

            Who is drunk but not with wine:

Thus says your lord, God,

            Your God who conducts a lawsuit for [God’s] people:

“Hey! I have taken from your hand

            The cup of the tareilah,

            The chalice cup of my rage.

You will not drink from it again!” (Isaiah 51:21-22)

That is the ultimate consolation: that the period of incapacitation is over, and it will not return.

*

How do you comfort people who are being vanquished—by external enemies, or by enemies in their minds?

This week’s haftarah considers the case of people vanquished by enemies from outside. The unrelenting battles and sieges shatter them—both physically, through wounds and hunger, and mentally, through fear and answering rage over their plight. Thus the Judahites are also vanquished by enemies from within, emotionally overwhelmed until they are driven to madness, like the horse riders in Jeremiah.

When I reread the fourth haftarah of consolation this year, I thought of my mother, who has been suffering from tareilah for years now. A lifelong teetotaler, in old age she reels around because her balance is so poor. She often falls, and I keep expecting her to be vanquished by physical incapacitation. Yet after each hospitalization except the last she healed enough to stagger to her feet and use her walker. For all I know, she will rise up again at age 93.

My mother also staggers mentally, due to early-stage dementia. Sometimes her absence of short-term memory and subsequent confusion make her panic. She knows something is terribly wrong but she does not know what it is. Then in is my job as her daughter to hold her hand and “carefully lead her” by telling her the sad facts of her situation yet again. She calms down, so I must be comforting her, temporarily.

I hate to see my mother lie helplessly in bed “like an antelope in a net”. But I cannot take the cup of rage, or fear, away from her.

A people may live for hundreds of generations. But an individual human being is indeed “a mortal who must die”, like grass. Someday every one of us will be vanquished by incapacitation, then death.

If I said, like second Isaiah:

Therefore listen, please, to this, wretched one

            Who is drunk but not with wine—

I could not promise an end to tareilah. I could only add:

“I came back to hold your hand. Look at the flowers I brought you. Look out the window at the sky and the green trees. Wait.”

  1. We are in the middle of the seven-week period during which Jews read a “haftarah of consolation” from second Isaiah each week.
  2. Throughout this essay I translate the nouns chamah (חֲמַה) and chamat (חֲמַת) as “rage”. Other translations include “wrath” and “fury”.
  3. The two other occurrences of the root ra-al are hare-alu (הָרְעָלוּ), “they were shaken”, in Nahum 2:4; and hare-alot (הָרְעָלוֹת), which appears in a list of ornaments women wore in Psalm 60:5.
  4. King Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire, quickly captured Babylon and its empire in 539 B.C.E.

 

Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Drink Up

Judah was an independent kingdom from 931 to 586 B.C.E.1

Then the Babylonians conquered the country; destroyed its capital city, Jerusalem; razed the temple of the God of Israel; and forced the leaders and skilled craftsmen of Judah into exile in Babylon.

The Judahites in Babylon began to lose faith and assimilate. The prophets known as Ezekiel and second Isaiah2 urged their people to return to worshiping their own God. Then, they prophesied, God would return them to their own land.

For seven weeks after Tisha Be-Av, the annual day of fasting to mourn both times that a foreign empire destroyed Jerusalem and its temple,3 each Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is accompanied by a “haftarah of consolation”. All seven of these haftarah readings are from second Isaiah.

This week the Torah reading Re-eih is accompanied by the third haftarah of consolation. Here God promises to rebuild Jerusalem so it will be more beautiful and more secure than before.4 Then God calls out:

Oh!5 Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!

            And who has no silver, go buy and eat!

Go buy [food] without silver,

            And wine and milk at no cost! (Isaiah 55:1)

The 8th-century prophet Amos had previously predicted:

“Hey! The time is coming,” says my lord God, “when I will send hunger into the land: not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God. They will wander from sea to sea and from the north to the east they will roam to seek the word of God, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

Since that first reference in the book of Amos, many Jewish sources have compared a desire for words of Torah to a thirst for water. Five tractates of the Talmud cite the line from our haftarah, “Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!” as proof that water means Torah study, and then go on to deduce something about the study of Torah.6

For example, tractate Bava Kama asks why the written text of the Torah is read out loud to the community on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The rabbis answer that in Exodus 15:22, the Israelites traveled for three days after crossing the Reed Sea, and then complained because they had not found water. Therefore the people should not go for more than three days without hearing or reading Torah, they said, citing Isaiah 55:1:

Those who interpret verses metaphorically said that water here is referring to nothing other than torah, as it is stated metaphorically, concerning those who desire wisdom: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water”7

torah (תּוֹרָה) = instruction; law. (This is the meaning of torah in the Hebrew Bible, derived from the verb yoreh, יוֹרֶה = instruct, teach. A homonym of yoreh means “give to drink” in Biblical Hebrew.)

By Talmudic times, torah could also mean the first five books of the bible; the entire Hebrew Bible; the laws written in the bible; and the combination of written torah (the Hebrew Bible) and oral torah (all subsequent Jewish interpretations of the bible, to the present day).

Amos warns that torah, God’s instructions, cannot be found outside the Israelite kingdoms. But second Isaiah indicates that the exiled Judahites can learn torah even in Babylon. All they need is the thirst to seek out the teachers among their own people, including prophets who could share new information from God.

Why should you weigh out silver for what is not bread,

            And the earnings of your labor for what does not satisfy?

Keep listening to me, and eat what is good,

            And you will pamper yourself by plumping up your soul.

Turn your ear and go to me,

            Listen and revive your soul.

And I will cut with you an everlasting covenant,

            The faithful loyalty [I showed] to David. (Isaiah 55:2-3)

In other words, listening to torah, the words of God, is the most valuable activity in the world (besides what you need to do for bare survival). Learning torah plumps up (literally, fattens) and revives the soul that animates your body, just as drinking and eating fatten and revive your physical body.

Fresh water, from rain, springs, or wells, is a natural (or God-given) resource, like air and sunlight.

And just as one who desires to drink should be able to drink without cost, so all who desire to learn the law should be able to learn without cost and without price … (Midrash Tanchuma)8

From the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. until the 20th-century takeover of most of the world by capitalism, the Jewish tradition was that students could learn torah (in all senses of the word) from rabbis for free. Rabbis were supported by side jobs, by their wives, or by their communities as a whole.

In Isaiah 55:1, God says everyone who is thirsty or hungry should go and “buy” milk, wine, and food, as well as water, for free.

Water, food, wine, and milk

Perhaps milk, wine, food, and water represent four kinds of torah. The written Hebrew Bible is a conglomeration of:

  • stories, from foundational myths to historical events;
  • laws for religious rituals, including offerings to God at the temple;
  • laws for ethical behavior toward other human beings; and
  • statements about the nature of God.

Milk is essential for life for all very young mammals, and stories are essential for human children to begin to make sense of the world. Stories are important in the bible, in the Talmud, and in Jewish life to the present; they go beyond mere facts to tell us about human nature and the ways of the world. These stories are as nourishing as milk.

Libation amphora, second temple

Wine appears in the bible both as a libation at the altar, and a drink at feasts to celebrate gifts from God. Wine is still part of Jewish religious rituals such as welcoming Shabbat and observing Passover, as well as individual rites of passage. Rituals help people to organize their otherwise chaotic lives, and, like the Jewish practice of saying blessings, make us aware of occasions for gratitude. Wine could represent religious rituals and blessings.

Food is essential for all life to continue; a code of ethics is essential for any human society to continue. Ethical laws are scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible, not just in the Ten Commandments. Those that appear most often are injunctions to help feed the poor and the stranger. So food might stand for the ethical injunctions in torah.

Waterfalls at Ein Gedi, Israel

That leaves water to represent the nature of God. Water is transparent; God is invisible, heard (at least inside the minds of inspired humans) but not seen. Water flows to fill any shape; the bible describes God in many different ways, as a creator and a destroyer, a dealer of strict justice and a compassionate savior. Both plants and animals need water to live and to grow; and according to the bible and later torah, all life comes from God.

*

The third haftarah of consolation ends with Isaiah 55:5, which prophecies that the Judahites will be rescued by a nation they had never heard of—which turned out to be the Persian Empire. Right after that come two verses that could console anyone who studies torah:

Inquire about God when [God] is present;

            Call when [God] is becoming near.

Let the wicked abandon their path,

            And their plans for doing harm.

Let them turn back to God, and [God] will have compassion for them;

            To our God, for [God] abundantly forgives. (Isaiah 55:6-7)

If we are thirsty to enlarge our attitude toward life, we can go for the water of an inspired teaching, including much of torah. If we recognize and abandon our selfishness and spite, we can be forgiven, if only by the still, small voice within us. And then our animating souls will plump up and revive.

  1. At times, however, the kings of Judah paid tribute to nearby empires in exchange for peace.
  2. Most of Isaiah 1-39 consists of the prophecies of Isaiah son of Amotz, who lived in Jerusalem when the Assyrians besieged it in 701 B.C.E. (but failed to capture the city). Isaiah 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah”, is a collection of writings dating from after the Babylonians succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E..
  3. Tisha Be-Av commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. See my post Lamentations: Seeking Comfort.
  4. This is the simple meaning of Isaiah 54:11-17. For an alternate interpretation of this passage, see my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.
  5. The all-purpose Hebrew interjection I translate as “Oh” is hoy, הוֹי. It appears many times in the prophets, from 1 Kings to Habakuk, but nowhere else in the bible.
  6. Talmud Bavli: Avodah Zara 5b, Bava Kamma 17a and 82a, Kidduishin 30b, Sukkah 52b, and Taanit 7a.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 82a, William Davidson translation in sefaria.org.
  8. Midrash Tanchuma was written during the 6th-9th centuries C.E. This commentary, Vayakhel 8:1, cites Isaiah 55:1. Translation from sefaria.org.

 

Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Power of Names

Prophet Isaiah by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Hey!  God has announced

            To the ends of the earth:

“Say to the daughter of Zion

            Hey!  Your rescue is coming!”  (Isaiah 62:11)           

The second prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Judah who were deported to Babylon when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.  The verse appears in the haftarah reading which accompanies this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim.  It is is the seventh and final “haftarah of consolation” after the annual fast of Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the temple.1  This week’s haftarah offers more than consolation; Isaiah predicts that God will return the exiles to Jerusalem in triumph.

Then, Isaiah says, instead of denigrating the deportees and their ruined city, everyone in the world will admire the Jews and Jerusalem.

And so my lord, God,

          Will make virtue and praise sprout up

          In front of all the nations.  (Isaiah 61:11)

Then nations will see your virtue,

            And every king your glory.

And you will be called by a new sheim

            That the mouth of God will pronounce.  (Isaiah 62:2)

sheim (שֵׁם) = name, reputation, fame.

In fact, after about 45 years in exile, a group of deportees and their families did return to Jerusalem.  The book of Ezra credits God with using Cyrus, the first king of the Persian Empire, as a tool for achieving the liberation of these Jews.2

Cyrus Cylinder, photo by Ferrell Jenkins

King Cyrus of Persia recorded his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.E. in a cuneiform record called the Cyrus Cylinder.  One ambiguous sentence on the cylinder could be interpreted as a decree that all peoples deported by the Babylonians, including the Jews from Judah, were now free to return to their homes and rebuild their temples.3

Cyrus could be called virtuous and praiseworthy for establishing freedom of movement and religious freedom for the subjects in his empire.  But how will God make the Jews who return to Jerusalem virtuous and praiseworthy?  How will God give them a new sheim?

The country the Israelites return to is no longer the independent kingdom of Judah (Yehudah, יְהוּדָה), but a Persian province called Judea (Yehud).  But this is not the kind of name change second Isaiah means.  Instead, the prophet says God will change the way other people describe the Jews and Jerusalem.

Never again will it be said of you: “Forsaken”

            And never again will it be said of your land: “Desolation”.

For you will be called: “I Delight in Her”

            And your land: “Betrothed”.

Because God delights in you,

            And your land is embraced.  (Isaiah 62:4)

Once the returning exiles rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, it makes sense that nobody would call the people “forsaken” or the city-state “desolation” any more.  Judea would become one thriving province among many.

But the governors of other provinces in the Persian Empire would not describe the people Israel as “I Delight in Her”, since the first person would only apply to God.   And the land is “betrothed” to God, not to Cyrus or the provincial governor.  “I Delight in Her” and “Betrothed” are the new names that “the mouth of God will pronounce”.

Later in the poem the Israelites and Jerusalem are assigned other positive descriptors.

And they will be called: “The Holy People”,

            “Redeemed by God”.

And you [Zion] will be called: “Sought Out”,

            “City Not Forsaken”.  (Isaiah 62:12)

Who will use those names to refer to the people and the land?  The phrase “Redeemed by God” could only be used by the redeemed exiles themselves.  They are also the most likely to use the other three names.  We learn in the book of Ezra that the Jews who returned from Babylon sought out Jerusalem/Zion instead of leaving the city forsaken because they believed it was their holy mission to rebuild the temple and reestablish their religion there.

In other words, first Isaiah announces the new names of praise that God will speak.  Then the people act, living up to those names by returning to their parents’ homeland and rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple.  Once they have succeeded, they deserve the names.

*

Can we use the same technique?  For example, what if Americans started referring to the United States with the name “Mother of Exiles” from the 1893 Emma Lazarus poem for the Statue of Liberty?  Would we be more inclined to welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who seek asylum in the United States?

What if we took seriously the final phrase from the American pledge of allegiance (1942), “with liberty and justice for all”?  If millions of yard signs said: “America: Liberty and Justice for All”, would more people work to make it true?

And on a personal level, what if we named ourselves according to our good qualities, however nascent?  For example, I realized I have been getting through a hard year with fortitude.  Calling myself “Fortitude” might help me to stay strong and calm until various health issues are resolved.

I can also call myself “Blessed”, because after all, I have good food to eat, I live in a good apartment with my beloved husband, I have good long-distance conversations with my friends and with my son and daughter-in-law, and I can still write.  I say “I am blessed” and I appreciate what I have.

  1. Traditionally, Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the summer month of Av) is a day for mourning the fall of both temples in Jerusalem—the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. Today most Jews who observe Tish B’Av mourn the destruction and suffering without any desire to return to the temple method of worship.
  2. Ezra 1:1-4, 3:7, 4:3-5, and 5:13-6:12.
  3. “[32]I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e. in Babylon] to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.” (translation of the Cyrus Cylinder in https://www.livius.org/sources/content/cyrus-cylinder/cyrus-cylinder-translation/).  The cylinder specifically mentions the return of the images of two Akkadian gods. The Israelites would have no “images” of their God, and the ark of the covenant is missing from the biblical and historical record after the fall of the first temple in 587 B.C.E.

Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: Our Father, Our King

A king, 15-13th cent. BCE, Hazor

Avinu malkeinu, we have missed the mark before you.

Avinu malkeinu, we have no king other than you.

avinu (אָבִינוּ) = our father.

malkeinu (מַלְכֵּנוּ) = our king.

These are the first two verses of a prayer sung from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur to ask God to forgive our misdeeds of the past year.  (The new year, 5781, began on Friday evening, and Yom Kippur will end the evening of September 28, 2020 in the secular calendar.)

The Avinu Malkeinu prayer can be traced to the Talmud, which records a story about Rabbi Akiva’s prayer during a drought.1  Akiva’s teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, prayed for rain.

Rabbi Akiva, Mantua Haggadah, 1568

And he recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered.  Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said: “Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”  And rain immediately fell. The Sages were whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not.  A Divine Voice emerged and said: “It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving.  God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”  (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 25b, The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org)

Over the centuries more verses were added to Rabbi Akiva’s original two verses, all beginning with the words Avinu malkeinu.2

The first book of Isaiah, dated to the 8th century B.C.E., warns King Ahaz of Judah about dangers from other nations and urges him not to become a vassal of Assyria.  The prophet calls God, not King Ahaz, malkeinu:

For God is our judge

          Who issues decrees;

God is malkeinu;

          [God] rescues us.  (Isaiah 33:22)

A king here is not only a judge and a legislator, but also the one who rescues his subjects from foreign threats.

Prophet Isaiah, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The second book of Isaiah, dated to 540 B.C.E. or later, predicts that God will return the exiles in Babylonia to their homeland of Judah.  The prophet reminds God that the Israelites are like children waiting for their parent to rescue them:

For you are avinu.

          Even if Abraham did not know us

          And Israel did not recognize us

You, God, are avinu.

            Our redeemer from long ago is your name.  (Isaiah 63:16)

A father knows his children, and if they become slaves he redeems them.

If God is like our father and our king, then each of us is like a child or a servant to God.  In fact, the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah includes a special three-part section with the following words after each set of shofar blasts:

Today the world is born.  [God] makes all creations of all worlds stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants.  If as children, have compassion toward us like the compassion of a father for children!  And if as servants, our eyes hang on you until you pardon us and you release our verdict like a light, fear-inspiring Holy One!

What does it mean to be like a child to God?

Although children may be born with some instincts about fairness and kindness, they have a lot to learn.  When they miss the mark, or even commit serious violations, children should be guided to realize that what they did was wrong and taught to repent, apologize, and make amends.  A good human parent or mentor can do this with unflagging love for the child.

A child without help from an adult either misses out, or learns slowly through trial and error and close observation.  The bible offers some rules about morality and about how to right the wrongs we do, but these hints are easy to overlook in the flood of narrative and ancient case law.

And although God may continue to love us when, like children, we miss the mark out of ignorance or naivety in a new situation, God does not provide the kind of instruction and guidance that humans can.  Only after we have developed a mature sense of right and wrong, and a process for righting the wrongs we do, is it possible to hear the voice of God inside our own consciences.  We need good humans in our lives before we can grow up and become good humans ourselves.

What does it mean to be like a servant to God?

In an absolute monarchy, the ruler’s subjects are like servants.  Some are obedient minions of the monarchs themselves.  Others are public servants who help, advise, and make requests of the monarch as they work for the good of the kingdom.

Do we serve God by obeying as many of God’s original orders to the Israelites as we can, even if God issued them several millennia ago?  Do we take the biblical command to exterminate Canaanites as an order to exterminate Palestinians?  Do we stone women who are not virgins on their wedding day?  Do we obey other ancient rules that seem unethical by modern standards?

Or do we serve God by working for the good of God’s kingdom?  In the book of Genesis God creates the world and then lets human beings rule over it.3  Now human beings are becoming absolute rulers of the world, and we are doing it badly; pollution has led to global climate catastrophe, and intolerance has prevented us from working together for mutual aid.  We need to improve as human beings so we can rescue God’s world.

Rescue

Here is the final verse of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu:

Avinu malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us.

          Even if we have no [good] deeds

          Treat us with charity and kindness, and rescue us.

We pray for God, our father, our king, to forgive us for our failings the previous year and rescue us from the consequences.  But as adults, we have to rescue ourselves—by doing the appropriate good deeds.

Now that I am no longer a child, I pray to the still small voice of God within for inspiration on how to recognize my misdeeds, how to make amends graciously, and how to change my approach to life so I can gradually learn to do better.

And when I think of God as a parent or a monarch, I imagine God silently praying for us wayward servants to pull ourselves together, turn around, and collectively rescue the world by doing what only human beings can do: teaching our children, restoring our planet, and treating everyone with charity and kindness.

  1. Akiva ben Yoseif, called “Rabbi Akiva” in the Talmud, lived in Judea 30-135 C.E.
  2. The total number of verses used for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) ranges from 27 in the Yemenite tradition to 53 in the tradition of the Jews of Salonika.
  3. Genesis 1:26.

Song of Songs & 2 Isaiah: Love Sacred and Profane

A single word can mean attraction, desire, passion, affection, or devotion.

In English, that word is “love”.  In Biblical Hebrew, it is ahavah (אַהֲבָה).

Song of Songs, Rothschild machzor, 15th century CE

The noun ahavah and its related verb, ahav (אָהַב), appear eighteen times in The Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim, the short biblical book that Jews traditionally read during the week of Passover/Pesach.  The first line in this series of interlocking poems sets the tone:

            Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth …  (The Song of Songs 1:2)

Soon the female speaker cries:

            Revive me with raisin cakes,

            Refresh me with quinces,

            Because I am faint with ahavah!  (Song of Songs 2:5)

The book frequently expresses erotic attraction by using metaphors from nature.  The woman’s breasts are compared to twin gazelle fawns, date clusters, grape clusters, and towers.1  In another example, the man says:

            A locked garden is my sister, my bride;

            A locked well, a sealed spring.

            Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates

            And choice fruit …  (Song of Songs 4:12-13)

And the woman responds:

            Let my beloved come into his garden,

            And let him eat its choice fruit.  (Songs of Songs 4:16)

What is a book like this doing in the bible?  God is never mentioned in The Song of Songs.  Yet subsequent commentators, including Rashi,2 have argued that the whole book is an allegory for the love between the Israelites and God.

There is a precedent for this analogy.  In the 8th century BCE, Hosea portrayed the northern kingdom of Israel as the unfaithful wife of God.3  After him, several other biblical prophets portrayed the southern kingdom of Judah as God’s unfaithful wife, and the covenant between God and the people as a marriage contract.4  So the idea of using a human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between a people and God was well-known by the third or second century BCE, when The Song of Songs was written.  But the poetry in this book focuses on sexual love, not on the covenant of marriage.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva argued for the inclusion of The Song of Songs in the biblical canon, declaring, “All eternity is not as worthwhile as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all biblical books are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”5

Song of Songs, artist unknown

Perhaps some human beings have loved God with an ahavah similar to the sensual yearning of the lovers in The Song of Songs.  Maimonides wrote: “What is the proper form of the love of God?  It is that one should love God with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly … for the whole of Song [of Songs] is a parable on this theme.”6

But it is hard to imagine God loving human beings that way.  Although the Torah presents us with an anthropomorphic God who feels rage, jealousy, and compassion, the God of Israel is different from other ancient Near Eastern gods in that God does not partner with a goddess, and never engages in sex.

Then how does God love humans?  In the Hebrew Bible divine love is not individual, but collective.  God loves the people of Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem.  God loves those who follow God’s rules.  The reader is encouraged to be like God and love concepts such as justice and compassion.

The love of God sometimes seems like immature favoritism to a modern reader.  Out of love, God destroys the rivals or enemies of the Israelites.7  When the Israelites are “unfaithful” and worship other gods, God lashes out in jealousy and destroys them, either by afflicting them with plagues or making their enemies victorious.  Neither the people nor God seem mature enough for marriage.

In other biblical passages, God’s love is more like a good parent’s devotion.

            For Israel was a boy and ohaveihu

            And from Egypt I called to my son …  (Hosea 11:1)

ohaveihu (אֺהֲבֵהוּ) = I loved him.

Similarly, the second book of Isaiah recalls a time when God was kind to the people of Judah, the southern kingdom of Israelites.

            And [God] said: “Surely they are my people,

            Children who do not betray.”

            And [God] became their rescuer.  (Isaiah 63:8)

            … In ahavah and compassion, [God] redeemed them,

            Plucked them up and carried them all the days of old.

            But they, they rebelled

            And pained [God’s] holy spirit.

            And [God] turned against them as an enemy;

            [God] made war against them.  (Isaiah 63:9-10)

Then the people of Judah yearn to come home again to an affectionate “father” who is devoted to their welfare. They recall that:

            “… You, God, are our father,

            Our redeemer of old …  (Isaiah 63:16)

*

Why do we read The Song of Songs during Passover?  The Passover seder retells the story of God taking the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.  We repeat God’s promise:

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:7)

This could mean taking the Israelites as a metaphorical wife; the bible sometimes uses the word “take” (lakach, לָקַה) to mean have intercourse with or marry.  But it could also mean God adopts the Israelite slaves and their fellow-travelers out of compassion, as if they are children who need special care.  Then God treats them with affection and devotion, the ahavah of a parent—at least until they reject God and worship other gods.

Is there anything in The Song of Songs to connect human sensual desire with God’s ahavah?  I found one hint.  Three times in The Song of Songs, the erotic poetry is interrupted by this verse:

            I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem,

            By deer or by gazelles of the field:

            Do not rouse or lay bare ahavah until it pleases!  (The Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4)

The female speaker is warning her friends not to rush into consummating a sexual attraction; wait until the ahavah is ripe.  She does not say what a ripe love is.  A more overpowering attraction?  Or a fuller relationship with the beloved that includes tenderness, friendship, affection, and devotion, as well as carnal desire?  For human beings, physical ahavah and spiritual ahavah are often inseparable.

May each of us find ahavah in our lives, whether it is passionate desire or affectionate devotion.  And may each of us learn how to turn toward the world with an open heart and ahavah.

  1. The Song of Songs 4:5, 7:4, 7:8, 7:9, 8:10.
  2. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  3. Hosea 2:18-22.
  4. See Jeremiah 2:2, Ezekiel 16:3-14, and Second Isaiah 54:4-10 and 62:5.
  5. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50-135 CE), quoted in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.
  6. Maimonides, a.k.a. Moses ben Maimon or Rambam (12th century CE), Mishnah Torah, I: The Book of Knowledge, 10:3, Laws Concerning Repentance.
  7. For example, see Malachi 1:2.

Yom Kippur & Isaiah: Ending Slavery

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Goittlieb

We do it every year on Yom Kippur. This Friday at sunset, observant Jews whose health permits will begin a 26-hour fast, accompanied by communal prayer Friday evening and all day Saturday.  One of the readings on Yom Kippur is a passage from second Isaiah1 in which the Israelites ask God:

We fasted; why did you not see?

          Inninu our bodies, but you did not notice!

inninu (עִנִּינוּ) = we overpowered, we subdued, we humiliated, we oppressed. (From the root verb anah, ענה.)

God replies:

Hey, on the day of your fasting, you meet [to do] business,

          and you beat all your laborers!

Hey, you fast with a lawsuit and a quarrel,

          and you strike with a wicked fist!

You cannot, with a fast like today,

          make your voice heard on high.

Is it [only] like this, the fast I would choose:

          a day of humans annot their bodies? (Isaiah 58:3-5)

annot (עַנּוֹת) = overpowering, subduing, humiliating, oppressing. (Also from the root verb anah.)

The divine objection is that while the Israelites are annot their physical appetites by fasting, they are also annot other people. God will pay attention only to people who behave morally toward other human beings.

Is not this the fast I would choose:

          Opening the shackles of wickedness,

breaking the harness ropes of the human yoke,

          and setting free those who are crushed?  (Isaiah 58:6)

Most books of the Bible accept slavery, and issue laws ameliorating it somewhat by providing for the emancipation of Israelite slaves (by redemption2 or after six years3), by limiting who can be sold as a slave4, and by giving all slaves, Israelite and foreign, the day of Shabbat and all festival days off from work.5

But in second Isaiah, God calls for slave-owning Israelites to free all their slaves. God will not pay attention to anyone who is annot other people by owning them as slaves.

Then God implies that neglecting anyone so poor as to be without food, shelter, or clothing is another form of annot. God continues the description of the fast God would choose:

Beggars, by Rembrandt

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,

and bringing home the homeless poor?

When you see a naked person, you must cover him,

and not hide yourself from your fellow.  (Isaiah 58:7)

This is a tall order for getting God’s attention. If I take it literally, I at least feel relieved that I have no slaves (or even employees), I never use my fists, and I am not quarreling with or suing anyone. But I would be afraid to invite a homeless stranger into my home unless I had a lot of friends there in case of emergency.

Taken less literally, the reading from second Isaiah encourages me to continue making donations to food banks, giving spare change to beggars, and donating money and goods to charities. It also reminds me that I am happy to pay taxes for programs that assist the poor.

But maybe I could do more about “opening the shackles of wickedness” and “setting free those who are crushed”. In the United States today slavery is illegal, but there are people living here without government papers. “Illegal aliens” who have no other home are not free. Many are oppressed and harassed by their employers or by government employees. Many do not dare complain about inhumane working conditions; what if they got deported? There is no American law to free them after six years of menial and insecure labor, so that they can pursue higher education and better jobs.

Freeing the oppressed resident aliens in America is not only the right thing to do, but the religious thing to do. The Bible repeatedly warns us not to “oppress the stranger”, i.e. resident alien.6 What can ordinary citizens do to free “illegal aliens” from annot? We can keep letting our elected officials know that all shackles are wicked, and that everyone deserves freedom and equality—and therefore legal status in their own country, the country where they have lived for years.

That is when you call and God answers,

            you cry out and [God] says, Here I am:

When you banish the human yoke,

            the pointed finger, and unjust speech. (Isaiah 58:9)

  1. Modern scholars agree that chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah were written in the 8th century B.C.E., when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Chapters 40-66 are dated to either the 6th century B.C.E., during the Babylonian exile of the prominent families of Judah, or the 5th century, after the Persian Empire had swallowed the Babylonian Empire and given Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and build the second temple.
  2. Leviticus 25:35-37. See my post Mishpatim and Psalms 39 & 119: Foreigners.
  3. Deuteronomy 15:12-13. See my post Haftarat Mishpatim—Jeremiah: False Freedom.
  4. Deuteronomy 21:10-14. See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.
  5. Exodus 23:12 for Shabbat. Similar laws are given for each festival day when it is ordered.
  6. Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:17, 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10.

 

Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

After the tenth plague, the pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Then he has another change of heart, and sends a brigade of charioteers after them. At nightfall the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the shore of the sea—the Red Sea in English, the Sea of Reeds (yam sufיַם סוּף) in the Hebrew Bible. Both parties camp for the night, with the Israelites trapped between the enemy and the water.

What happens next? The most familiar version of the story appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”).

The Passage of the Red Sea, by William Hole,
The Passage of the Red Sea,
by William B. Hole (1846-1917)

The Prose Account

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind all night. Vayasem the sea dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites entered the middle of the sea on dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left. (Exodus/Shemot 14:21-22)

vayasem (וַיָּשֶׂם) = and he/it placed, set, set up, put, put in.

Until I translated these verses, I had the impression that God simply splits the water down to the seabed, which becomes dry and firm enough for the Israelites to walk on. But the Torah says vayasem, as if there were no real bottom to the sea, so God has to install a strip of dry land.  (Most English translations say God “made” or “turned” the sea into dry ground—which has the same implication.)

In the cosmology of the ancient Israelites, beneath the land lies a subterranean ocean of water called the tehom (תְּהוֹם —singular) or tehomot (תְּהֺמֺת —plural). This deep water bubbles up through the earth in the form of springs. Under the ocean, it’s water all the way down, with no ocean floor.1

Pharoah Tutankhamen on a chariot, pursuing Nubians
Pharaoh Tutankhamen on a chariot, pursuing Nubians

And the Egyptians pursued, and all the horses of Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen entered after them into the middle of the sea. …And [God] made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously. (Exodus 14:23, 25)

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea settled before morning into its normal flow. And the Egyptians were fleeing from it, and God na-ar the Egyptians into the middle of the sea. And the waters turned back, and they covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharaoh, the one coming after them into the sea; not one remained. (Exodus 14:27-28)

na-ar (נָעַר) = shook out, shook off. (The form of this verb used in verse 14:27 is vayena-eir (וַיְנָעֵר). This verb appears only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.)

Safe on the other side of the sea, the Israelites are awed by God’s miracle, and moved to sing along with Moses and Miriam.

The Song of the Sea

That was when Moses sang, along with the children of Israel, this song to God… (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)

The whole “Song of the Sea” that follows is a psalm written in archaic Hebrew, possibly the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible.2 The scribe who redacted this week’s Torah portion inserted the well-known hymn without changing its archaic syntax and spellings.

The Song of the Sea does not mention God splitting the sea or the Israelites walking on dry land. Nevertheless, one early verse matches the prose account: 

from the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain
from the Golden Haggadah,
c. 1320 Spain

         Chariots of Pharaoh and his army

                        [God] pitched into the sea,

            And the best of his captains

                        sank in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:4)

Twice the Song of the Sea says the Egyptians sank all the way down into the tehomot.

           Tehomot covered them;

           They went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:5)

           In the wind of Your nostrils the waters were dammed up.

                        They stood up like a dike [made of] waves,

                        Congealed tehomot in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8)   

Ice canyon, Antarctica, 2011 photo by NASA
Ice canyon, Antarctica,
2011 photo by NASA

         You blew Your wind; the sea covered them.

                        They sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:10)

This description led 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno to explain that the water at the bottom of the sea became solid, and the Israelites walked across the congealed or frozen water.

Psalm 136

The Bible includes several briefer descriptions of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, all used as examples of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But the descriptions in Second Isaiah (51:9-10) and Psalms 77, 106, and 136 do not explain how the Israelites got across the water.

Psalm 136 does, however, refer to God as the one who split the sea, and like the prose account in Exodus it uses the rare word na-ar.

reed-sea-2           Who cut the Reed Sea into parts,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.

            And let Israel pass through the middle,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.

            Veni-eir Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness. (Psalm 136:13-15)

veni-eir (וְנִעֵר) = And [God] shook off, shook out. (Another form of the verb na-ar נָעַר.)

We do not know which text first used the poetic image of God shaking off the Egyptians into the sea: Psalm 136, or one of the stories woven into the prose account in this week’s Torah portion. 3

reed-sea-3If we follow the prose account, the sea divides and a miraculous strip of earth appears over the tehomot. I can picture the earth getting soggy after the Israelites have crossed, so the chariot wheels of the Egyptians get stuck in mud. Then the bridge of earth buckles and shakes off the Egyptians, chariots, and horses into the water, before God’s second wind blows the walls of water down over them.

On the other hand, if we take the Song of the Sea as the oldest, most authoritative account, and follow Sforno’s explanation that the water congeals into a frozen roadway between dikes of ice, then I can imagine the chariot wheels skidding out of control on the slippery surface. This provides an alternate explanation of the detail in the prose account that God “made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously”. (Exodus 14:25)  Then the ice-dikes break and the sea rushes over the Egyptians.

Either of these two pictures of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is more vivid than most readers—and illustrators—of the Bible imagine.

Miriam's Song, 1909
Miriam’s Song, 1909

Unless you are an eye witness, it takes vivid imagery to feel the impact of a miracle. The various Biblical accounts of crossing the Sea of Reeds are designed to make the descendants of the Israelites experience the feeling of a last-minute rescue, and to give them confidence that God has always been on their side. So for centuries the Israelites rejoiced over the miracle at the sea.

Yet after the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., some Jews questioned this attitude. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says God does not “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked”. He gives the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as an example, saying: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino translation, Megilah 10b)

I, too, feel sympathy for the Egyptian soldiers. They have no more choice about following the Pharaoh’s orders than the Israelite slaves did before Pharaoh let them go. And their orders were to round up the Israelites (shooting arrows if necessary) and bring them back for re-enslavement.

Suddenly the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of a situation they never imagined was possible.  They are chasing the Israelites across a dirt bridge over the sea, or maybe down an ice canyon. They see the ex-slaves reach the far side, but their chariot wheels are either mired in mud or skidding on ice. Then the Egyptians are shaken off the path like crumbs.  And the sea crashes down on them.

Today people still experience events they never imagined were possible. Sometimes what seems like a good miracle to one group of people is worse than a nightmare to another group.

May we all learn the humanity to refrain from singing out with joy when our opponents are dying. And may God save us all when we find ourselves trapped in a situation we never imagined was possible.

___

1 This detail supports Richard Elliott Friedman’s argument in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001) that although the body of water in question is called the Sea of Reeds, it is no shallow lake, but the Gulf of Suez–the western arm of the Red Sea.

2 The exodus from Egypt is set during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, which ruled during the 13th century B.C.E. The Song of the Sea mentions the Plashet (Philistines), who did not emigrate to Canaan until about 1175 B.C.E. Thus Moses could not have known or composed the Song of the Sea, but the writer of the Song of Sea might have known the story of the exodus. According to modern scholars, the prose version of the story in Exodus is a compilation of three different stories written in Biblical Hebrew sometime after 700 B.C.E. The redactor also inserted the ancient Song of the Sea.

3 Psalm 136 cannot be reliably dated. The language is consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Exodus (excluding the archaic Song of the Sea). But it could have been written much earlier, and rewritten centuries later with updated language. Or it could even have been written during the time of the second temple, 530 B.C.E.-70 C.E.

Haftarat Lekh-Lekha—Isaiah: Seeing the Invisible

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:27-41:16.

What do you do when you once had a relationship with God, but now God seems to be absent?

The question is painful on this anniversary of Kristallnacht.  It is especially painful for those who believe in God as a benevolent parent or guardian, an external force looking after them and ensuring that, ultimately, good people will be rewarded, innocent people will have a chance, and everything will turn out for the best.

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem
Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Then something happens: Job is afflicted, Jerusalem is razed, the Nazis torture and kill millions of innocents, girls are raped, the day’s news threatens future darkness.  And it no longer makes sense to trust in a benevolent external God.

What do you do when God seems absent?

Many psalms address this question, and so does the second half of the book of Isaiah, written about 50 years after the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its population.  The prophet we know only as “second Isaiah” tried to persuade the Israelites that their God was still alive and strong, and would soon rescue them. This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah opens:

            Why do you say, Jacob,

            And why do you assert, Israel:

            “My path is hidden from God,

            My claim slips away from my God.” (Isaiah 40:27)

The Israelites believe that God cannot see what is happening to them, and that their covenant with the God of Israel has slipped away.  They feel invisible to God.  Second Isaiah responds:

            Do you not know?

            Surely you have heard?

            God is the god of all time,

            Creator of the ends of the earth.

            Never yiyaf and never will It grow weary.

            No one can fathom the depth of Its tevunah. (Isaiah 40: 28)

yiyaf (יִהעַף) = will he/It become faint, will tire out.

tevunah (תְּבוּנָּה) = insight, intelligence, discernment, skill.

The prophet counters that the God of Israel is the god of all time and all space, whose powers never flag and who has infinite insight. Therefore the Israelites cannot be invisible to God.

Babylonian Gods of the Dead, bronze
Babylonian gods of the dead, bronze

They feel invisible to God only because God is invisible to them.  Living in Babylon, they see no evidence of their God. The city is full of statues, reliefs, and paintings of other gods, but not the God of Israel. Their own god let the Babylonians raze the temple in Jerusalem, and let them languish in exile for decades.  Has God run out of power?

Second Isaiah says not only that God never grows faint or weary, but adds that God is:

            Notein laya-eif koach,

            And [giver] of abundant energy to those without vigor. (Isaiah 40:29)

Notein (נוֹתֵן) = Giver, giving.

laya-eif (לַיָּעֵף) = to the faint, to the tired. (From the same root as yiyaf.)

koach (כֹּחַ) = strength, endurance, power, ability to carry on.

Notein laya-eif koach = Giver of strength to the faint and tired.

Thus the prophet counters that not only is God powerful, but God is the one who gives strength and energy to human beings fainting with weariness.

Once again, second Isaiah declares that reality is the reverse of what the Israelites think.  God is not worn out; they are.

*

When I read the first line of Isaiah 40:29 in Hebrew, I recognized it from the Jewish morning blessings.  Our tradition upon arising is to bless God in gratitude for a list of blessings that come from God to us, including sight when we open our eyes, clothing, the ability to walk, and so on.

Out of the 16 morning blessings in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, 12 are dictated by the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot (“Blessings”). One of the blessings that is not from the Talmud is:

Blessed are You, God, our God, Ruler of everything, hanotein laya-eif koach.

hanotein (הַנּוֹתֵן) = the one who gives, the giver.

I often pronounce this blessing with extra enthusiasm, since I have chronically low energy, yet I am determined to make the most of my life.

Although some of second Isaiah’s exhortations no longer apply today, many of us still feel invisible to whatever runs the universe, as if “My path is hidden from God”.  Many of us still feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of exhaustion. And many of us still feel doomed by the agendas of other people, or by the results (such as global warming) of past human actions.

Second Isaiah says that our God is powerful  and always with us.  I conclude that our task is to learn how to sense God within, and draw inner strength from that sense. We can fathom the depth of our own insight. Then we might discover a core of divine strength within — and maybe even enough prophetic intuition to see our own paths.

May every one of us discover our own inner God, and draw strength from that connection to rise above our inevitable wounds and dedicate ourselves to kindness and patience.  And as we keep learning more about ourselves, may we keep learning more about other people — checking our assumptions, questioning hearsay, opening our minds to understand people who may seem like enemies until we get to know them.  May God strengthen us inside so we can cooperate to make life on this fragile earth as good as is possible now for all of us.