Haftarot for Vayikra & Tzav—Isaiah & Jeremiah: Useless Gods

March 23, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Jeremiah, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment
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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). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.

The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.

The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Tofet in "Bible Pictures", 1897

Tofet in “Bible Pictures”, 1897

Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below.  The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.

Yotzeir of an idol—

All of them are emptiness;

And what they crave

Cannot be useful.  (Isaiah 44:9)

yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.

Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.

Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:

And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)

The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.

Thus said God, king of Israel

And its redeemer, God of Armies:

I am first and I am last

And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)

The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)

And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)

But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.

The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:

I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion

And like a cloud your transgressions.

Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)

How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?

This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.

Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)

Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.

This people yatzarti for Myself:

My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)

yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)

Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.

But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.

*

We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.

A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.

But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.

Haftarat Yitro—Isaiah: Burning Angels

January 27, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Yitro | Leave a comment
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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 the Torah portion is Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), and the haftarah is Isaiah 6:1-7:6 & 9:5-6.

You cannot see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)

Although God cannot be seen directly, people in the Bible do experience visions of God. The Israelites see a manifestation of God in this week’s Torah portion, and Isaiah sees a manifestation of God in this week’s haftarah.

Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai

In the vision shared by everyone at Mount Sinai, God appears only as fire.

And Moses brought out the people from the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the bottom of the mountain. And all of Mount Sinai smoked, because God went down upon it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of the furnace, and all the mountain shuddered very much. (Exodus 19:17-18)

A shuddering, smoking mountain could be a volcano—except that in this vision, God’s fire comes down from the sky, not up from a crater. God also manifests in the book of Exodus as the fire Moses sees in the burning bush on Sinai, as the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites to Mount Sinai, and as fire and cloud on the mountain when Moses ascends to receive each pair of stone tablets.

No angels or other semi-divine creatures appear in the revelation at Mount Sinai; only fire, smoke, and various sounds.

In Isaiah’s moment of revelation, God does not appear as fire.

In the year King Uzziyahu died, I saw my Master sitting elevated on a lofty throne, and His skirts filling the heykhal. (Isaiah 6:1)

heykhal (הֵיכָל) = palace, temple; main room of the temple in Jerusalem; heavenly palace.

Isaiah beholds God wearing a robe and sitting on a throne, like a king—except that the skirts of the robe mysteriously flow out to fill the room. As the vision continues God speaks, but does not move.

However, angelic attendants surrounding God move, speak, and burn with fire.

Isaiah 6 serafSerafim are stationed above Him, each with six wings; with one pair he covers his face, and with a pair he covers his raglayim, and with a pair he flies. And one calls to another, and he says: Holy, holy holy! God of Tzevaot, Who fills all the earth with His glory! And the supports of the threshold shiver from the sound of the calling, and the house fills with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4)

serafim (שְׂרָפִים) = burners, burning creatures. (From the verb saraf, שָׂרַף = burn. Used in Numbers and Deuteronomy for “burning serpents”—probably poisonous snakes.)

tzevaot  (צְבָאוֹת) = armies (on earth); the stars (in the heavens).

raglayim (רַגְלָיִם) = (pair of) feet, legs; a euphemism for the penis. Singular: regel (רֶגֶל) = foot, leg; walking pace; time set for a pilgrimage-festival.

The serafim must both cover and uncover their faces and their raglayim; if these body parts were permanently covered, they would not need wings for that purpose. When and why do they conceal these parts of their anatomy?

In Leviticus Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400-600 C.E., Rabbi Jacob ben Zadbi says the serafim cover their faces to avoid looking at God’s presence, and cover their feet so God would not have to look at such unsightly appendages. (The writer assumed that the feet of the serafim were like the feet of Ezekiel’s angelic keruvim, which resembled calves’ feet.)

Twelfth-century C.E. rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed that the description of serafim covering their body parts is symbolic. The faces of the serafim are covered to indicate that “the cause of their existence is hidden and concealed”, while their feet are covered to indicate that their actions in the universe are also hidden. The wings for flying, Maimonides adds, merely represent the speed with which the serafim move when they act.

I propose a simpler explanation. Maybe the serafim cover their faces whenever they turn toward Isaiah, so he is not exposed to the blinding light radiating from these burning creatures. If seeing God’s face means death, seeing the faces of the serafim might be almost as bad.

Moses at the burning bush

Moses at the burning bush

As for covering their raglayim, I doubt the serafim are concealing their feet.  After all, humans must have bare feet when they are in God’s presence; Moses must remove his sandals in front of the burning bush, and the priests must go barefoot inside the sanctuary. Since Isaiah’s vision is set inside a heykhal, the serafim in God’s presence probably expose their bare feet.

Although the word raglayim most often refers to feet or legs, sometimes it implies the pubic area between the legs, and there are three places in the Bible where raglayim is definitely a euphemism for the male genital organs. In Judges 3:24 and 1 Samuel 24:4 the word raglayim is combined with a verb to indicate a man urinating.  And in the part of chapter 7 of Isaiah that is left out of this week’s haftarah, the prophet says that God will use the king of Assyria as a razor to shave off the head of hair and the hair of the raglayim (JPS: public hair) and also snatch away the beard. (Isaiah 7:20)

A man’s hair, especially his beard and pubic hair, stood for virility in ancient Israelite culture. Isaiah employs a shaving metaphor to prophesy that God will use Assyria to symbolically castrate Israel’s other enemies.

Why would the serafim in Isaiah’s vision use their extra wings to cover their genitals?

The penis is a symbol of rule, dominance, and control throughout the Bible, from the oath Abraham’s servant swears on his master’s yareich (which can also mean genitals; see my post Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath) to the Persian king who approves Esther’s interruption by lifting his sharvit (scepter). But God is the ultimate ruler. It would be subversive for a male to uncover his genitals in God’s presence.

That is why this week’s Torah portion specifies that all altars for God must be built without stairs or steps.

You must not ascend on stairs to My altar; that way you would expose your nakedness upon it. (Exodus 20:23)

The Torah also requires that priests must wear linen undergarments, so their genitals will be concealed in all areas of God’s sanctuary.

So each seraf uses one pair of wings to conceal his fiery face from Isaiah, for his own protection; and one pair of wings to conceal his genitals, so Isaiah will know that God rules, not the serafim.

Nevertheless, these angels are endowed with the potential to generate independent decisions and actions. One example occurs after Isaiah expresses his anxiety about having a vision of God.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

And I said: Woe to me! I am as good as dead, because I am a man of impure lips, and I am living in the midst of a people of impure lips, yet my eyes behold the King, God of Tzevaot! Then one of the serafim flew toward me, and in his hand was a live coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. And he touched it to my mouth and he said: Hey! Now that this has touched your lips, your bad deeds have gone away, and your offense is atoned for. Then I heard the voice of my Master saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said: Here I am, send me! (Isaiah 6:5-8)

We have come a long way from the vision at Mount Sinai of God as undifferentiated fire, unaccompanied by any furniture or subsidiary creatures.

Isaiah sees God in terms of a throne and skirts, not in terms of fire. The fire exists in God’s serafim, “burning ones”, who occupy a station somewhere between humankind and God. They praise God (Holy, holy holy!) and they are privy to some of God’s plans (and who will go for us?) They protect Isaiah from the blinding brightness of their faces, and they cover their genitals to indicate that although they have some power, God is the ultimate ruler. And one seraf, hearing Isaiah’s anxiety about his unworthiness, takes action to remove his guilt. In his relief, Isaiah volunteers to be God’s prophet. Thus the seraf both furthers God’s plan and helps Isaiah rise to his calling.

The image of God as a king with a throne and a long robe has continued to be popular, from some of the writings after the fall of the first temple to some of the explanations given to children today. For me, God as fire is a better metaphor. An individual human cannot become a god.

But maybe we can aspire to be brighter, more aware of God’s presence, and more able to listen to people and address their concerns.

May all of us humans learn to act as thoughtfully as the serafim in Isaiah’s vision.

Haftarah for Ki Tavo–Isaiah: Rise and Shine

August 19, 2013 at 11:16 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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I was an alto before I was a Jew. I first sang Handel’s “Messiah” in my high school choir. Now, 27 years after my conversion, I still enjoy Handel’s music, and I still do not take the words seriously. But when you sing words, you remember them.

This week I read the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and then turned to the haftarah, the passage from the Prophets/Neviyim that is traditionally chanted after the Torah portion. I glanced at the first line of this week’s haftarah in Hebrew, and I immediately sang:

handel-1Arise, shine, for thy light has come! (Isaiah 60:1)

This King James Bible translation accurately captures one possible meaning of the Hebrew. But the “Messiah” uses the line for an entirely different purpose than the book of Isaiah. Handel’s friend Charles Jennens, who provided the libretto for the oratorio, was a devout Anglican who wanted to tell a story of Jesus’ life in terms of direct divine intervention in human affairs. So he cut and pasted verses from all over the King James Bible and the Common Book of Prayer to make his point.

Jennens took many lines out of context from the book of Isaiah. At the beginning of the “Messiah”, after setting the scene, he put in a line from the King James version of Isaiah: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel: God with us.

This line is now notorious as a bad Hebrew translation. A more accurate translation would be: Behold (or Hey!), the young woman is pregnant and is giving birth to a son; may she call his name Immanu-El (with us God). (Isaiah 7:14)

There is no virgin birth in the original Hebrew, and the young woman is already pregnant. There is no indication here or in the rest of Isaiah that this line has anything to do with the birth of someone called Jesus about 700 years later.

But by using this quote from the King James Bible, Jennens established that the “Messiah” was going to be about Jesus. He proceeded with another out-of-context quote from Isaiah: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion …say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god! (Isaiah 40:9)

Then Jennens goes directly to the verse at the beginning of this week’s haftarah. The King James translation is: Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Here is my own translation:

Arise! Shine! For your light ba,

And the kavod of God dawns over you. (Isaiah 60:1)

ba = come, has come, is coming

kavod = glory, honor, dazzling splendor, awesome presence

In the “Messiah”, Jennens uncharacteristically chose to follow up Isaiah 60:1 with the next two verses, Isaiah 60:2-3. A solo bass sings the King James version: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Here is my translation from the Hebrew:

For hey! the darkness will cover the earth

And the gloom the peoples;

But God will dawn upon you

And Its kavod will appear over you.

And the nations will walk to your light

And kings to a gleam of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:2-3)

What is the light that either came or is coming? And who is “you”?

These three verses connect “light” with God’s glory. In the previous two chapters of Isaiah, the Israelites who live in exile in Babylonia have been groping in the darkness of ignorance, wondering how to find their god. So “light” may mean both enlightenment and God’s close approach.

The “you” (and all the verbs) in the verses above are in the feminine singular, but no female human is mentioned. “The people” and “God” (and “Jesus”!) would all take the masculine form. However, most place-names in the Torah are feminine. The subject whose light will attract the tribute of many nations is finally named in 60:14: And they will call you City of God, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Zion (pronounced Tziyon in Hebrew) is a synonym for Jerusalem. Scholars date the second half of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) to about 550-515 B.C.E., around the time when the Persian king Cyrus  gave the Jews in exile permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The poet in Isaiah chapter 60 apparently rejoiced that Zion’s people and religion were rising again, and hoped that the religion would spread as more and more nations “saw the light”.

So in the 6th century B.C.E., the book of Isaiah saw the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the dawn of an era in which belief in the god of Israel would become universal. In the 18th century C.E., the librettist of Handel’s “Messiah” connected the dawning of God’s light with the birth of Jesus, heralding the new religion of Christianity. Meanwhile, for the last 2,000 years or so, Isaiah 60:1-22 has been the “sixth haftarah of consolation” of Jews; we read it during the sixth week after Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the fall of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

Can this haftarah from Isaiah, which is so hopeful about the rebuilding of the temple, still console us for the fall of both temples in Jerusalem? Personally, I am glad that for the last 2,000 years we have been seeking God through prayer instead of through animal offerings at a temple.  But I am still waiting for enlightenment to dawn over Zion.

Meanwhile, I can use a message of hope during this introspective month of Elul, when Jews are asked to prepare for Yom Kippur by reviewing the past year and acknowledging their misdeeds. As Rabbi Shoshana Dworsky pointed out, it is easy for a woman to take the first few verses of this haftarah personally, since all the language is in the feminine singular! What if the poem is addressing me, as I wonder how I will ever outgrow the shortcomings in my character that I am pondering this month?

Maybe my light is coming, and soon I will arise and shine.

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