Haftarat Noach—Isaiah: From Raging Flood to Free Drinks

November 3, 2016 at 10:14 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Noach | 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). However, this week the haftarah is almost a duplicate.  This week’s Torah portion is Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32), and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-55:5—which includes all of haftarah for the Torah portion Re’eih, eight weeks ago.

After the flood subsides in this week’s Torah portion, God swears:

Never again to curse the earth on account of the human, since the yeitzer of the heart of the human is bad from its youth; and never again to destroy all life, as I have done.  (Genesis/Bereishit 8:21)

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ~1630

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630

yeitzer (יֵצֶר) = what is shaped or formed; by extension, an impulse or a tendency. (From the root yatzar, יָצַר = shaped, formed.)

Perhaps God senses that It overreacted, wiping out not just the entire human race, but all land-based animals (except for those on Noah’s ark). God might have tried to educate humankind, or at least to issue a detailed warning and then exercise selective punishment against chronic transgressors. God warns Noah about the flood 100 years ahead of time, so God might even have given Noah instructions for acting as a teacher and prophet. But in the Torah, God only instructs Noah about how to build and fill the ark, and then releases the flood. The divine rage at human evil is unabated. (See my post: Noach: Spoiled.)

The first chapter of this week’s haftarah compares God’s covenant with the Israelites to a marriage, and God, the husband, says:

           In a flood of rage I hid My face a while from you

           But with unending loyal kindness I had compassion on you,

           —said  your redeemer, God.

           Like the days of Noah this is to me:

           As I swore that the waters of Noah would not pass over the earth again,

           So I swear against becoming angry at you and against rebuking you! (Isaiah 54:8-9)

Many a battered wife has heard a promise like that, as I pointed out when I discussed this haftarah eight weeks ago. (See my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.)

But after God has finished promising that “he” will never, ever throw the Israelites out of the house again, or bring over foreign bullies to attack them, the haftarah abruptly takes a different turn.

Water Carrier, by Francisco Goya ~1810

Water Carrier, by
Francisco Goya ca. 1810

           Hoy! Everyone who is tzamei! Come for water!

            And if you have no silver, come, buy and eat!

            And come, with no silver and with nothing to barter, buy wine and milk! (Isaiah 55:1)

Hoy! (הוֹי) = Oy! My goodness! Alas! Oh! Oh, no! Oh, dear!

tzamei (צָמֵא) = thirsty.

Instead of a raging flood, God offers drinking water. Then God promises food, wine, and milk, all free of charge. What is this poetic largesse?

Second Isaiah is addressing the exiled Israelite families that were deported to Babylon in 597-586 B.C.E. when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and Jerusalem. Apparently these exiles were familiar with a passage from the book of Amos (circa 760 B.C.E.):

Hey!  Days are coming—declares God—when I will send a famine into the land: not a famine for bread nor a tzama for water, but for hearing the words of God.  And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east they shall roam, seeking the word of God, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)

tzama (צָמָא) = thirst.  (From the same root as tzamei.)

Amos prophesied the end of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria (which fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.), and promised a distant future when God would reinstate the Israelites in their own lands.  Until then, he warned, people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God would be unable to find it.

The “word of God” means either directives from God—the rules of the religion—or teaching (in Hebrew, torah, תּוֹרָה) by and about God. When the Babylonian Talmud was assembled around 500 C.E., there was already a tradition comparing torah with water. Ta’anit 7a and Bava Kama 82a in the Talmud even cite Isaiah 55:1 as proof that “water” means torah.

Second Isaiah declares that Amos’s distant future has arrived. After all, when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., the Israelites became free to return to their old homelands and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Now people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God can find it.

The haftarah picks up where Amos left off and gives further information about the word of God: it is free, and it will sustain the soul. Just as water is essential for the human body to live, the word of God is essential for the human soul to live.

by Mary Cassat, 1908

by Mary Cassat, 1908

Furthermore, according to second Isaiah, one can even get milk and wine for free.

Milk appears in the Bible as the nourishment humans receive without hard labor. Mothers nurse their infants, and the land that God promises to give the Israelites is repeatedly described as a “land flowing with milk and honey”. The luxury of milk is given out of parental love: a mother’s tenderness or God’s compassion.

            Wine makes the heart glad. (Psalm 104:15)

Although the Bible denounces excessive drinking, it calls for wine in sacraments as a sign of joy. Wine first appears in the Torah when Abraham returns victorious from a regional battle. Malki-tzedek (“King of Righteousness”) of Jerusalem brings him bread and wine and blesses him in the name of God. Later the Torah requires that people bring libation offerings of wine to the altar along with their offerings of animals and grain.

Since the word of God is compared to water, milk, and wine, Joanne Yocheved Heligman wrote in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, focusing on “spiritual goals” will nurture us with a balance of physical sustenance (water), love (milk), and spiritual joy (wine).

I would add that spiritual work is sustaining, like water, when it involves reading, studying, and interpreting words. It is nurturing, like milk, when it involves praying and behaving ethically toward other people. And it brings joy, like wine, when we have emotional and mystical experiences—although we must avoid becoming drunk on religious experiences and spending too much time away from the practical world.

When we feel empty and long for something we might call God, are we longing for water, milk, or wine?  The Psalms identify the longing for God’s presence with thirst for water.

           Like a deer who longs for streams of water,

                 So my soul longs for You, God;

           My soul is  tzamei  for God, for the god of life.

                 When can I come in? (Psalm 42:2)

May we all discover where to find free water, and all the other nourishment we long for.

Haftarot for Yom Kippur and Ha-azinu—Isaiah, Jonah, & 2 Samuel: Atonement

October 11, 2016 at 1:33 am | Posted in Acharey Mot, Isaiah 2, Jonah, Samuel 2, Yom Kippur | 2 Comments
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In this season of Jewish holy days, we once again have three haftarot (readings from the Prophets) in one week.  On Yom Kippur we read Isaiah 57:14-58:14 and the whole book of Jonah.  Then on Saturday we read 2 Samuel 22:1-51, the haftarah for Ha-azinu, the second to last Torah portion in Deuteronomy.

The English word “atone” was first used in the 16th century as a contraction of “at one”. Atonement is the process of making amends for wrongdoing in order to restore unity—especially unity with God.

In Biblical Hebrew, the word for atonement is kippurim (כִּפֻּרִים). It comes from the verb kipper (כִּפֶּר), which means cover, appease, make amends, reconcile.

goat-for-azazelThe first Torah reading on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a selection from the Torah portion Acharey Mot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. The portion describes an annual ritual of atonement in which the high priest places lots on two goats. He sacrifices one goat to reunite the sanctuary with God, and places the sins of the Israelites on the head of the other goat before sending it off into the wilderness. (See my post Metzorah & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)

Today on Yom Kippur, Jews read this Torah portion about the ancient technology for atonement, but we also confess misdeeds, beg for forgiveness, and pray for atonement with the divine.

All three haftarot this week assume that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—but if those who have been wicked repent and make amends, God welcomes them back.

First Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Isaiah 57:14-58:14

In this passage from second Isaiah, God promises to revive and heal the humble, but:

There is no shalom, said my God, for the wicked. (Isaiah 57:21)

shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, safety, ease, well-being.

I believe this is true even without an all-seeing god who directly interferes in the lives of individuals. Everyone who acts immorally eventually suffers because most of the humans around them come to distrust and reject them.

People who have a moral sense and know they are doing wrong also suffer from nagging uneasiness. They can distract themselves and/or go into denial, but peaceful well-being is not an option for them. They cannot become “at one” with the still, small voice within themselves.

The haftarah from Isaiah goes on to say that fasting and bowing, sackcloth and ashes—the 6th-century B.C.E. formula for Yom Kippur—are useless for atonement unless one also frees the oppressed, feeds the hungry, shelters the poor, clothes the naked, and refrains from violence and evil speech. The way to be heard by God is to do good for your fellow human beings.

            That is when you will call and God will answer;

            You will cry for help and [God] will say: Here I am. (Isaiah 58:9)

Good deeds create atonement.

Second Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Jonah
Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

When the prophet Jonah finally submits to doing the mission God gave him, he walks into Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyria, oppressor of the Israelites, and calls out:

“Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the men of Nineveh believed in God, and they proclaimed a fast and they put on sackcloth, from the great to the small. And the word was told to the king of Nineveh, and he rose from his throne and he took off his robe and he put on sackcloth and he sat on the ashes. (Jonah 3:5-6)

The king issues a proclamation that all the human residents, and even the livestock, must fast, wear sackcloth, cry out to God, and repent of doing violence.

And God saw what they did, that they turned away from the evil path; and God had a change of heart about the bad thing [God] spoke about doing to them, and [God] did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)

God forgives the whole Assyrian capitol city of Nineveh even before its people do any good deeds.  It is enough for them to admit their bad behavior and sincerely intend to reform.

Repentance creates atonement.

Third Haftarah: Reading from 2 Samuel for Saturday

The haftarah for the Torah portion Ha-azinu is read on either the Saturday before Yom Kippur or the Saturday afterward, depending on that year’s Hebrew calendar.  This year it comes after Yom Kippur.

This haftarah is a psalm attributed to King David, looking back on his life. (The long poem reappears with only a few minor word changes as Psalm 18.) Most commentary praises David for attributing all his narrow escapes and military successes to God rather than to his own cleverness.

Yet after praising and thanking God for rescuing him from his enemies, David explains:

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me.

            God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me.

            Ki I have kept the ways of God,

            And I have not done evil before my God.

            Ki all His laws are in front of me

            And from His decrees I do not swerve.

            And I am without blame or blemish for Him,

            And I have kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22:20-24)

ki (כִּי) = because, when, if.

How can David describe himself as a paragon? Earlier in the second book of Samuel, he clearly violates two of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)

Bathsheba with a letter from King David, by Rembrandt

Bathsheba, by Rembrandt

Earlier in the second book of Samuel, David sees a beautiful woman bathing, and finds out that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who is one of David’s soldiers. Nevertheless, he summons her to his palace and lies down with her.

When she informs the king that she is pregnant, he sends a message to the battlefront for Uriah to come back to Jerusalem. King David urges Uriah to go home and spend the night with his wife.  But Uriah insists on sleeping with the king’s officers, so David cannot claim he got his own wife pregnant.

David sends Uriah back to the front with a letter for his general, Joab, instructing him to place Uriah in the most dangerous part of the battlefield, then fall back so Uriah will be killed.  General Joab carries out the king’s orders.

As soon as Bathsheba has finished the mourning period for Uriah, King David takes her as his eighth wife. But he has already committed both adultery and murder. The prophet Nathan tells David a parable illustrating why his actions were despicable, and informs him that God said:

Why then did you hold the word of God in contempt, doing what is evil in My eyes? (2 Samuel 12:9)

God then states the consequences: “the sword will not swerve from your household”, and someone from David’s household will lie with the king’s women.

And David said to Nathan: “I did wrong before God.”  Then Nathan said to David: “God will even let your wrongdoing pass; you will not die.  Nevertheless …the son, the one [about to be] born to you, he will die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

So how can David say, in this Saturday’s haftarah: “I have not done evil before my God” and “From His decrees I do not swerve”?

Maybe David is living in a narcissist’s fantasy world, guilty of grandiosity and denial. Yet he did admit wrongdoing when Nathan pointed it out to him. Maybe David believed that God only rescues people who are perfectly good, so David painted himself that way.

But I think David knows he did wrong in the eyes of God when he took Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed. His confession saved his own life, but he was thoroughly punished.  Bathsheba’s first son sickened and died soon after birth. Later, one of David’s older sons, Absalom, killed his half-brother Amnon, overthrew his father, and lay with his father’s concubines. In the ensuing war between father and son, Absalom was killed despite David’s orders to spare his life.

By the time King David writes the psalm comprising this Saturday’s haftarah, he probably considers that God had punished him enough for his heinous crimes, and his slate has been wiped clean. Since those terrible times, his behavior has been righteous.

When David says:

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me. (2 Samuel 22:20)

he might mean that God rescues him when God is pleased with him, not because. And when David writes:

God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me. (2 Samuel 22:21)

he might mean that when he is righteous and keeps his hands clean, God rewards him, but when he fails to do the right things, God makes him suffer. He knows that God’s response varies according to his behavior, and that he was not always such a paragon. Realizing this, David says,

            I became without blame or blemish for Him,

            And I kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22: 24)

According to this reading, David’s message is that a human being can change. We suffer when we do evil, but we still have the ability to keep ourselves from doing wrong again.  We can still become good and righteous, without blame or blemish.

The two haftarot we read on Yom Kippur show that both good deeds and repentance create atonement with God. The haftarah for Ha-azinu this Saturday shows that even a murderer can repent and change himself into a righteous human being.  The conscientious effort to return to the right path and stay on it creates atonement.

May we all be blessed with the ability to return to oneness with God, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Dressed Up

September 28, 2016 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Nitzavim | 2 Comments
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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 Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) and the haftarah is Isaiah 61:10-63:9).

The final haftarah before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is the last of the seven weeks of consolation.  The reading from second Isaiah begins:

            I truly rejoice in God;

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation:

            [God] wrapped me in a meiyl of tzedakah

            Like a bridegroom, priest-like in a glorious turban,

            And like a bride adorned with her jewelry. (Isaiah 61:10)

meiyl (מְעִיל) = formal robe worn over other garments, wrapped and tied with a sash.  (Plural:  meiylim.)

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = righteousness, right behavior, justice.

This poetic passage is narrated by the prophet, but it implies that God is dressing every Israelite living in exile in Babylon with the same amazing garments.

Second Isaiah rejoiced because after more than 50 years of exile, the Israelites in Babylon were free.  The Persian king Cyrus finished conquering the Babylonian Empire and decreed in 535 B.C.E. that all foreign populations were now free to return to their old homelands and rebuild their own temples. According to second Isaiah (45:1), God anointed King Cyrus as God’s agent in order to liberate the Israelites.

The poet expresses this liberation in terms of clothing.  God dresses the Israelites in new garments, garments associated with priesthood and weddings.

Garments of the high priest

Garments of
the high priest

High Priest

The word meiyl appears 28 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first ten times it refers to a robe worn exclusively by the high priest.

They shall make the garments of Aaron to sanctify him to serve as a priest to Me. And these are the garments they shall make: a breast-piece and an oracular-apron and a meiyl and a checkered tunic and a turban and a sash… (Exodus/Shemot 28:3-4)

The purpose of the unique costumes worn by the priests is to make the men holy so they can serve in the sanctuary.  In this case, the clothes do make the man.  The high priest, beginning with Aaron, wears additional garments, including a meiyl over his tunic. The high priest’s meiyl is a long rectangle of woven fabric with a nicely finished neck-hole in the middle.  It is dyed completely blue, and it has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates around the bottom hem. (For more details, see my posts Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing, and Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.)

Prophet-Judge

In the first five books of the Bible, only the high priest wears a meiylAfter that, a meiyl is the prophet Samuel’s signature garment from childhood to death and beyond.  When he is a boy serving as an attendant at the temple in Shiloh,

…his mother made for him a little meiyl, and she brought it up for him every year when she went up with her husband to slaughter the animal sacrifice. (1 Samuel 2:19)

Samuel continues to wear a meiyl as Israel’s chief prophet and judge.  After Samuel has died, King Saul asks the witch of En-Dor to summon his ghost.

And he said to her: What do you see?  And she said: An old man rising up, and he, he is wrapped in a meiylThen Saul knew that he was Samuel… (1 Samuel 28:14)

Rulers and royalty

Although the highest service is to God, the Bible also shows rulers dedicated to serving their nations wearing meiylimKing Saul, King David, the princes of the Phoenician city-states in the book of Ezekiel, and Ezra the Scribe—who was the informal ruler of Jerusalem when the exiles began to rebuild.

The children of rulers might also wear meiylimKing Saul’s son Jonathan removes his meiyl and gives it to David as a pledge of love.  Once David is the king, he dresses his daughters in meiylim.

The only people in the Bible who wear meiylim even though they are neither rulers nor prophets nor priests appear in the book of Job.  Job tears his meiyl in grief when he hears that all his children are dead, and Job’s three friends tear their meiylim when they first see him sitting in the garbage dump, covered with boils.  Here the meiyl seems to be merely a garment indicating the status of prominent citizens.

Metaphor

Four of the meiylim in the Bible are imaginary; the image of a robe reinforces the idea of being wrapped in something.  A meiyl is used in a metaphor for being wrapped in tzedakah in Job 29:14, and for being wrapped in shame in Psalm 109:29.  God wraps Itself in a meiyl of zeal in Isaiah 59:17.  And in this week’s haftarah, God wraps the prophet and every exiled Israelite ina meiyl of tzedakah”.

Perhaps men wore meiylim to their weddings in Biblical times, but the Bible does not say.  Brides and bridegrooms did wear their most beautiful clothes and jewelry, and the haftarah compares the bridegroom’s turban to the turban of a priest. The haftarah goes on to say that the rebuilt Jerusalem will  “marry” God, and the returning Israelites will “marry” Jerusalem.  It is appropriate, then, for God to dress the new Jerusalemites as if they were priests serving God.

The divine act of wrapping the Israelites in meiylim of tzedakah also explains a statement at the end of last week’s haftarah, in which God tells Jerusalem:

            And your people, all of them tzaddikim,

            Forever they will possess the land…(Isaiah 60:21)

tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִים) = persons who are innocent, morally in the right, righteous, just. (From the same root as tzedakah.)

How could all of the people be, or become, tzaddikim? The answer in this week’s haftarah is that God is wrapping them in tzedakah by wiping the slate clean and granting everyone a fresh start, in which they are innocent and dedicated to righteous service, dressed by God in the meiyl of a high priest, a king, a bridegroom.

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Thus in the seventh and final haftarah of consolation, God is viewed as a being who grants the Israelites total forgiveness for their past misdeeds, and lovingly wraps them in robes that consecrate them and transform them into perfectly good people.

We all drag behind us the memories of our own misdeeds. Some of us strive to become better people, serving the good and staying on the right side of morality and God. What a blessing it would be for a supernatural being to grant us complete absolution and a fresh start as a human with naturally good instincts and desires!

Yet just as the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem soon began committing new misdeeds, we, too, would stray from the right path. Our new meiylim would fade into a memory, and we would once again face the human condition, in which we are constantly given opportunities to choose our own behavior.

But after all, it is greater to choose to do the right thing than to do it unintentionally. And it is greater to do tzedakah because we have consciously developed good habits than to do it because we have no free will.

Then we can say, with second Isaiah:

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation.

Haftarat Ki Tavo—Isaiah: A Place for Feet

September 23, 2016 at 10:11 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo | 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 Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 60:1-22).
by Michelangelo

by Michelangelo

A popular image of God is of an old man with a beard, floating in the sky and stretching out his hand like the God that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. But the Hebrew Bible never mentions a beard in connection with God.  “By the hand of God” appears all over the Bible, but it is simply an idiom for “through the agency of God”.  Sometimes a deed is accomplished by the hand of a human being, sometimes by the hand of God.

In the Bible, the most common anthropomorphic image of God is of someone enveloped in robes, sitting on a throne. The face is too bright to be seen, and the hands are not mentioned. But sometimes the feet are.

The feet of God appear in this week’s haftarah, where second Isaiah encourages the exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem.  God tells Jerusalem that someday the other nations, from Sheba to the Phoenician cities of Lebanon, will bring tribute to her.

            The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you,

            All its juniper, fir, and cypress,

            To glorify the place of My holy site;

            And the place of My raglayim I will honor.  (Isaiah 60:13)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet. (From regel, רֶגֶל = foot. Regalim, רְגָלִים = feet (more than two); times, occasions.)

The Babylonian army had burned the First Temple to the ground when it captured Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon in 589-587 B.C.E.  But in 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon and decreed that all of its foreign populations were free to return to their former homes and worship their own gods. Some of the exiled Israelites were skeptical about going.  So in this week’s haftarah, God promises that once the Israelites build a new temple in Jerusalem, God will honor it as the place of the divine presence. Second Isaiah refers to God’s presence in terms of both God’s light and God’s raglayim.

The most stunning appearance of God’s feet is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when 74 people climb halfway up Mount Sinai.

Then they went up, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel.  And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his raglayim it was like a making of bricks of sapir and like an image of the sky for purity.  (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-10)

sapir (סַפִּיר) = a blue precious stone. (From the same root as safar (סָפַר) = counted up, and seifer (סֵפֶר) = scroll, document, book.)

Do the 74 Israelites actually see human-shaped feet against the bright blue sky?  Is it a shared vision in a dream state?  Or do they see something indescribable, which Exodus tries to capture with the metaphors of feet (suggestive of footsteps), sapir (suggestive of writing) and sky (which is also the word for heavens)?

Baal Preparing Thunder & Lightning

Baal Preparing
Thunder and Lightning

Four other references to God’s feet are based on descriptions of Baal the storm-god in other Canaanite religions. For example:

            And He bent down the sky and descended,

            And a thick fog was beneath his raglayim.  (Psalm 18:10)

Did the original poets who invented these descriptions believe that Baal actually had feet and stood on the clouds, or were they simply writing poetry?  What about the poets who applied those descriptions to the God of Israel?

The Bible does use raglayim for several idioms involving human beings. When a man’s foot slips or stumbles, it means he is straying from the path of righteousness. Raglayim also appears as a euphemism for genitals, and even urination. In another biblical idiom, when person A bows at the raglayim of person B, it means A submits to B’s authority.  An example occurs in this week’s haftarah immediately after the verse about God’s feet.

            And they will walk to you bowing,

            The children of your oppressors.

            And they will bow down at the soles of your raglayim,

            Everyone who used to scorn you.

            And they will call you City of God,

            Zion, Holy of Israel.  (Isaiah 60:14)

Pharaoh Tutankhamun's throne and footstool

Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s throne and footstool

 

People bow down to the ground to honor God throughout the Hebrew Bible, but they never bow to God’s feet. They do, however, bow down to God’s footstool in the Psalms.

            Let us enter His sanctuary.

            Let us bow down to His hadom-raglayim.

            Arise, God, to your resting-place,

            You and the ark of Your power!  (Psalm 132:7-8)

hadom-raglayim (הֲדֺם־רַגְלַיִם) = the stool for a pair of feet; footstool. (Used in the Bible only five times, always in reference to God).

In Psalms, Lamentations, and 2 Chronicles, God’s footstool is either the ark or the whole First Temple in Jerusalem. But in second Isaiah, the idea of God’s footstool expands along with the idea of God:

Thus said Hashem:

            The heavens are My throne

            And the earth is My hadom-raglayim.

            Where is this house that you will build for Me?

            Where is this place, my resting-place?

            All these were made by My hand,

            So all these came into being

                        —declares God.  (Isaiah 66:1-2)

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This week’s haftarah is the sixth of seven readings from second Isaiah called the seven haftarot of consolation. Each one gives us a different view of God, either by shaking up one of the traditional beliefs about a local, anthropomorphic God or by expanding on the concept of a single abstract God for the whole universe.

How can we interpret the line “And the place of My raglayim I will honor” in this haftarah?

God is addressing Jerusalem—but not the ruined houses and broken stones of the old city in the hills of Judah.  God is really addressing the people of Jerusalem, the exiles who feel ruined and broken in Babylon. Now they have a chance to go home and rebuild. Now the people can make themselves into a holy footstool, a hadom-raglayim, for God.

Then will they see God’s feet over their heads?  No. In the rest of this week’s haftarah second Isaiah describes God’s presence in terms of light, not body parts.  The haftarah begins:  Arise, shine, for your light has come.  (See my earlier post, Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.)

After God promises to honor the temple as if God’s feet rested there, the haftarah says:

            God will be for you an everlasting light;

            And your God will be your splendor.  (Isaiah 60:19)

The presence of God is more like light than like a robed figure with feet.  And if you make yourselves a holy community, the light of God will shine through you.

Haftarat Ki Teitzei—Isaiah: Owners and Redeemers

September 13, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Teitzei | 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 Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-10).

            For a little while I abandoned you,

            But with great compassion I will gather you in. (Isaiah 54:7)

This week’s haftarah is a poem in which the husband is God, and the wife is the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.

I discussed the portrayal of God as a defective husband in my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, so this week I will focus on a verse in which the poet, second Isaiah, tells the Israelites they will no longer experience public disgrace—

            Because your be-alim is your Maker;

                        “God of Tzevaot” is His name.

            And your go-eil is the Holy One of Israel;

                        “God of all the earth” He will be called. (Isaiah 54:5)

be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = plural of ba-al (בַּעַל) = owner, husband, lord, master; or a god in other Canaanite religions. (A noun related to the verb ba-al (בָּעַל) = possess, rule over, take into possession as a wife.)

tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies. (“Sabaoth” in older English translations.)

go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = (singular) redeemer, ransomer, avenger.

Ba-al

The word ba-al in this context does not mean a Canaanite god, but rather lord or husband. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Hosea introduced the idea of God as Israel’s husband, and it became a popular prophetic motif in the Bible. Hosea uses two words for “husband”: ba-al and ish. God tells “his” straying wife (the Israelites) that when she returns to him,

            You will call Me “my ish”,

            And no longer will you call Me “my ba-al”. (Hosea 2:18)  

sketch by Rembrandt

sketch by Rembrandt

ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband, person, someone.

The term ish puts the husband and wife on friendly and equal footing. The term ba-al makes the husband the wife’s owner and ruler.

This week’s haftarah uses the plural of majesty, calling God be-alim. The plural of majesty is appropriate for the kind of husband who owns and rules over his wife, a ba-al rather than an ish.

When second Isaiah then calls God “your Maker” (osayikh(עֺשַׂיִךְ)—also a plural of majesty), the prophet may be implying that God owns them because “he” created them in the first place.

Tzevaot

Next comes the name “God of Armies”, commonly translated as “Lord of Hosts”. The Bible uses the word tzevaot both for the armies of nations at war, and for the constellations of stars in the sky—considered as formations of God’s angelic servants. God has ultimate power over the success or failure of all armies. The time when God rejects “his wife” in the haftarah corresponds to the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E., when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon, which they were not allowed to leave.

Second Isaiah was written around the end of the exile in 538 B.C.E., when the Persian army captured Babylon and its king, Cyrus, decreed general freedom of religion and movement. The prophet’s agenda was to encourage the Israelite exiles who had been assimilating in Babylon to return to their own religion and their own former home. By using the name “God of Armies”, second Isaiah might be saying, “Do not despair! Your husband, owner, and maker also has the power to replace the army that punished you with an army that will rescue you!”

(Another reason for including the name “God of tzevaot” might be to counter the Babylonian view of stars as gods, and remind the people that the God of Israel controls the stars.)

Go-eil

A go-eil in the Bible is the kinsman whose duty is help his close relatives in one of three ways. When an impoverished relative sells himself into slavery, the nearest kinsman who can afford it is the go-eil who must buy him back. When an impoverished relative sells a field, the go-eil buys back the land to keep it in the family, and lets his relative farm it. And when a judge orders the death of a relative’s murderer, the go-eil serves as the executioner.

The Israelites in exile are like slaves because they are unable to leave Babylon, the house of their master. And they are landless because the Babylonians now rule their own former kingdom of Judah.

When second Isaiah calls God the go-eil of the Israelites, it means that God will rescue them from their captivity in Babylon and return them to the land of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. But it also implies that God’s relationship to the Israelites is not only like that of a husband-owner, but also like that of a brother or uncle who is responsible for rescuing them.

This intimate view of God probably did comfort and inspire some of the Israelites in Babylon. I can imagine that other exiles would prefer either an abstract “God of all the earth”, or a friendlier sort of divine husband, an ish.

After all, when God’s wife and possession (the Israelites) did not obey him, her ba-al punished her by arranging for the Babylonian army to seize Jerusalem. Now, when God is in a better mood, he will be the ba-al who takes his wife back to rule over her again, and the go-eil who redeems her by executing her Babylonian enemies and arranging for the Persian army to seize Babylon. The Israelites are in the same position as the wife of a despot; they must meekly accept whatever God does, and be grateful when anything good comes their way.

*

Last week, in Haftarah for Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name, I wrote that each of the seven haftarot of consolation (the readings from second Isaiah during the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah) offers a different view of God. This is the fifth haftarah of consolation, and its view of God is open to several interpretations.

I think there is some truth in the idea that all human beings, not just the Israelites in Babylon, are like the wife of a despot who must meekly accept whatever our God does, and be grateful when anything good comes our way. After all, we can take actions that change our lives, but we cannot make our lives from scratch. “Whatever God does” could mean everything that is out of our hands, from the laws of physics to our genes and the world we were born into. If we do not accept reality, we doom ourselves to perpetual anger and misery.

But besides taking whatever actions we can to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, we can also be grateful for the good that happens to come our way. I am grateful I happened to meet my beloved husband. And on another level, I am grateful for the sight of marigolds in the sunlight outside my window.

But I am also ready to say “God of all the earth” instead of thinking of God as an autocratic family member!

Haftarat Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name

September 6, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Shoftim | 2 Comments
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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 Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) and the haftarah is Isaiah 51:12-52:12).
Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

The second “book” of Isaiah (written in the sixth century B.C.E. around the end of the Babylonian exile, two centuries after the first half of Isaiah) opens:

            Nachamu, nachamu My people!” (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחֲמוּ) = Comfort them! (From the same root as nicham (נִחָם) = having a change of heart; regretting, or being comforted.)

This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah begins:

             I, I am He who menacheim you. (Isaiah 51:12)

menacheim (מְנַחֵם) = is comforting.

At this point, many of the exiles in Babylon have given up on their old god and abandoned all hope of returning to Jerusalem. So second Isaiah repeatedly tries to reassure them and change their hearts; he or she uses a form of the root verb nicham eleven times.

In the Jewish calendar, this is the time of year when we, too, need comfort leading to a change of heart. So for the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av (the day of mourning for the fall of the temple in Jerusalem) and Rosh Hashanah (the celebration of the new year) we read seven haftarot of “consolation”, all from second Isaiah.

This year I notice that each of these seven haftarot not only urges the exiles to stick to their own religion and prepare to return to Jerusalem; it also coaxes them to consider different views of God.

The first week—

—in Haftarah for Ve-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling? we learned that once God desires to communicate comfort, the transmission of instructions to human prophets goes through divine “voices”, aspects of a God Who contains a variety ideas and purposes. When we feel persecuted, it may comfort us to remember that God is not single-mindedly out to get us, but is looking at a bigger picture.

The second week—

—in Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning? second Isaiah encourages the reluctant Jews in Babylon to think of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children, and of God as a rejected father. Instead of being told that God has compassion on us, we feel compassion for an anthropomorphic God. Feeling compassion for someone else can cause a change of heart in someone who is sunk in despair.

The third week—

—in Haftarah Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, we took a new look at what God would be like if God really were anthropomorphic. Like a slap in the face, this realization could radically change someone’s theological attitude.

The fourth week, this week—

—God not only declares Itself the one who comforts the exiled Israelites, but also announces a new divine name.

In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, “name” can also mean “reputation”. In this week’s haftarah, God mentions two earlier occasions when Israelites, the people God promised to protect, were nevertheless enslaved: when they were sojourning in Egypt, and when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria. Both occasions gave God a bad reputation—a bad name. And the Torah portrays a God who is very concerned about “his” reputation. For example, when God threatens to kill all the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf, Moses talks God out of it by asking:

What would the Egyptians say? “He was bad; He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to remove them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus/Shemot 32:12)

Now, God says, the Babylonians are the oppressors. They captured Jerusalem, razed God’s temple, deported all the leading families of Judah, and still refuse to let them leave Babylon.

            Their oppressors mock them—declares God—

            And constantly, all day, shemi is reviled. (Isaiah 52:5)

shemi (שְׁמִי) = my name.

The Babylonians are giving the God of Israel a bad name.

            Therefore My people shall know shemi,

            Therefore, on that day;

            Because I myself am the one, hamedabeir. Here I am! (Isaiah 52:5-6)

hamedabeir (הַמְדַבֵּר) = the one who is speaking, the one who speaks, the speaker. (From the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak)

Since God’s old name has been reviled, God promises that the Israelites will know God by a new name. Then God identifies Itself not merely as the speaker of this verse, but as “the one, The Speaker”, adding extra emphasis with “Here I am!”

The concept of God as Hamedabeir appears elsewhere in the Bible. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis/Bereishit (a chapter that modern scholars suspect was written during the Babylonian exile), God speaks the world into being. Whatever God says, happens.

Second Isaiah not only refers to God as the creator of everything, but emphasizes that what God speaks into being is permanent.

            Grass withers, flowers fall

            But the davar of our God stands forever! (Isaiah 40:8)

davar  (דָּבָר) = word, speech, thing, event. (Also from the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak.)

What is the davar of God regarding the exiles in Babylon? In this week’s haftarah second Isaiah says:

            Be untroubled! Sing out together

            Ruins of Jerusalem!

            For God nicham His people;

            He will redeem Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:9)

nicham (ִנִחַם) = had a change of heart about; comforted.

God let the Babylonians punish the Israelites because they were unjust and because they worshiped other gods. But now God has had a change of heart and wants to end the punishment and rescue the Israelites from Babylon. Since God’s name was reviled, some of the exiles do not believe God has the power to carry out this desire. So God names Itself Hamedabeir and then declares:

            Thus it is: My davar that issues from My mouth

            Does not return to me empty-handed,

            But performs my pleasure

            And succeeds in what I send it to do.

            For in celebration you shall leave,

            And in security you shall be led. (Isaiah 55:11-12)

The speech of Hamedabeir achieves exactly what God wants it to. In this case, God wants the Israelites in Babylon to return joyfully and safely to Jerusalem. If the exiles believe this information, their hearts will change and they will be filled with new hope.

*

It is easy to give up on God when life looks bleak, and you blame an anthropomorphic god for making it that way. No wonder many Israelite exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. adopted the Babylonian religion. No wonder many people today adopt the religion of atheism.

But there is an alternative: redefine God. Discover a name for God that changes your view of reality, and therefore changes your heart.

Thinking of God as Hamedabeir, The Speaker, takes me in a different direction from second Isaiah. Not being a physicist, I take it on faith that one reality consists of the movement of sub-atomic particles. But another reality is the world we perceive directly with our senses, the world of the davar—the thing and the event. We human beings cannot help dividing our world into things and events. We are also designed to label everything we experience. What we cannot name does not clearly exist for us. In our own way, we too are speakers.

What if God is the ur-speech that creates things out of the dance of sub-atomic particles—for us and creatures like us?

What if God, The Speaker, is the source of meaning? Maybe God is what speaks to all human beings, a transcendent inner voice which we seldom hear. When we do hear The Speaker say something new, we often misinterpret it. Yet sometimes inspiration shines through.

I am comforted by the idea of a Speaker who makes meaning, even if I do not understand it.

 

Haftarat Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?

August 24, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Eikev, Isaiah 2, Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments
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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 Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and the haftarah is Isaiah 49:14-51:3).

            How can we sing a song of God

            On foreign soil?

            If I forget you, Jerusalem

            May I forget my right hand. (Psalm 137:4-5)

Babylon

Babylon

Psalm 137, like this week’s haftarah, is about the Babylonian Exile. In 586 B.C.E. the Babylonian army deported the last leading families of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. These Israelites were stuck in the capital of the Babylonian empire for 48 years, until Babylon surrendered to the Persian king Cyrus, who declared freedom of movement and freedom of religion in 538 B.C.E..

In Jewish history, which spans millennia, 48 years may not seem long.  But for individuals it was a long time to remember their old home and their old god—especially if they were born in Babylon, and had only their elders’ memories to go by.

            Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer? (Isaiah 50:2)

Usually when someone in the Hebrew Bible cries “Why have you forsaken me?” it is an Israelite addressing God. But in this week’s haftarah, God feels forsaken by the Israelites who have adjusted to life in Babylon.

In the second book of Isaiah, God is preparing to end the rule of the Babylonian empire, rescue the Israelite exiles, and return them to Jerusalem and their own land. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?) But it is no use unless the Israelites trust their God and want to go home.

map of BabylonImagine you were kidnapped and taken to a strange city. Your life there was comfortable, but you were not free to leave. Would you accept your new reality, adopt the customs and religion of the city, and make it your home?

That must have been the strategy of the Israelites that the Assyrian armies deported from Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, in 729-724 B.C.E.—because the Bible never mentions them again.

Or would you cling to your memories and your old religion, hoping that someday you would escape and go home?

This is the strategy that the second book of Isaiah advocates for the Israelites living in Babylon.

Reading between the lines, I imagine some Israelites moving past their trauma, falling in love with Babylonians, and assimilating. I imagine others stuck with post-traumatic stress disorder, trying hard not to remember their old lives or God or Jerusalem. And I imagine a few stubborn individuals clinging to the belief that their God was alive and well, and would someday rescue them and return them to their motherland.

But how could the believers convince their fellow Israelites to take heart and wait for God?

This week’s haftarah tries a new approach: Stop thinking about yourselves, and remember the parents you left behind!  How do they feel—your homeland, which is like a mother, and your God, who is like a father?

The haftarah begins with the land—called Zion for one of the hills in Jerusalem—crying that God has forsaken her, too.

And Zion says:

            God has abandoned me,

            And my lord has forgotten me! (Isaiah 49:14)

So far, Zion and God sound like lovers. But this is not another example of the prophetic poetry claiming that the people of Israel are straying after other gods like a wife who is unfaithful to her husband.  In this haftarah, the innocent land is Zion, and the people are Zion’s children. Zion lies in ruins after the war, empty and desolate because her destroyers (the Babylonians) stole all her children.

God reassures Zion by telling her:

            Hey! I will lift up My hand to nations

            And raise My banner to peoples,

            And they shall bring your sons on their bosoms

            And carry your daughters on their shoulders. (Isaiah 49:22)

In this poem God will arrange for foreigners (like King Cyrus) to return Zion’s children to Jerusalem. The poet or poets who wrote second Isaiah probably hoped that if discouraged exiles thought of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children and longing to have them back, their hearts might soften, and they might want to return to her.

Then, second Isaiah says, they would hear God ask:

           Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer?

            Is my hand short, too short for redemption?

            And is there no power in me to save? (Isaiah 50:2)

What if their god, their father, had not been defeated when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem? What if God really had planned the exile to punish them, as Jeremiah kept prophesying during the siege, but now the punishment was over and God missed the Israelites? What if their father, their god, really was powerful enough to rescue them and take them home to Zion?

If both parents, God and Zion, are yearning for them, then the Israelites in Babylon might start yearning for God and Zion again.

*

Decree by Cyrus

Decree by Cyrus allowing captives in Babylon to return to their native lands

It worked. After King Cyrus issued his decree, bands of Israelites from Babylon began returning to Jerusalem, a thousand or so at a time. Under Ezra and Nehemiah they built a new, larger temple for God. The former kingdom of Judah became a Persian province administered by Jews, and the expanded, monotheistic version of their religion, founded by second Isaiah, survived.

Today, two and a half millennia later, yearning for Jerusalem is built into Jewish daily liturgy. At the end of the Passover seder in the spring and Yom Kippur services in the autumn we even sing out: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Almost half of the Jews in the world today live in the United States. We are free to emigrate to the nation of Israel, as long as we meet Israel’s requirements. Only a few do so. Are religious American Jews still exiles?

Or has God become both the mother and the father we yearn for, while Jerusalem is now a pilgrimage site?

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