Almost 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). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.
Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.
The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10. The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20. And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.
Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.
Prayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.
Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt. The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.
Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes! Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)
Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray! (Probably from the same root as pilleil = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)
Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.
Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.
Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)
The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.
1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.
2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect. This corresponds to prayers of praise.
3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.
4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged). Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.
(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)
A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it. Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.
The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer. King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife. God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease. Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)
After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.
Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes. But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.
And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:10-11)
vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.
God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)
…and they bowed down there to God. Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:
My heart rejoices in God…
There is no holy one like God,
Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)
Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.
This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:
Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,
For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.
Take devarim with you
And shuvu to God.
Say to [God]:
May You forgive all wrongdoing
And take the good.
And we will make amends of the bulls
Of our lips. (Hosea 14:2-3)
Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)
shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) = Return! (plural, addressing the people)
devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.
Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.
As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.
A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact. But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.
Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God. Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.
It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.