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.

*

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.

Re-eih: Releasing Your Hand

August 12, 2015 at 10:36 pm | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Nevertheless, there should not be among you evyon; because God will truly bless you in the land that God, your god, is giving to you to possess as a hereditary holding—but only if you truly pay attention to the voice of God, your god, to be careful to do this entire commandment that I Myself command you today. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:4-5) 

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Beggar,
by Rembrandt van Rijn

evyon (אֶבְיוֹן) = paupers, needy, destitute, those with no means to make a living.

This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”) claims that the land of Canaan is fertile enough so that none of its residents need be paupers—as long as the Israelites share their wealth according to God’s instructions.

The portion gives directions for several ways to reduce poverty. First, Re-eih calls for landowners to tithe for six years out of a seven-year cycle. The tithe—a tenth of the landowner’s produce—is designated for several different purposes. A third of the annual tithe (or perhaps the whole tithe every three years) is given to the poor in the landowner’s town, specifically to landless resident aliens, orphans, and widows.

In the seventh year of the cycle, all farmland lies fallow, and whatever food grows naturally is available to everyone. This week’s Torah portion also calls  for the release of debts in the seventh year.

At the end of seven years you shall  make a shmittah. And this is the matter of the shmittah: everyone who  has  handed out a loan shamot the loan to his fellow. He  shall not press his fellow or his brother, for a shmittah has been proclaimed for the sake of God. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה) = release;  remission of debt.

shamot (שָׁמפּט) = releases.

In other words, borrowers who are simply too poor to repay their debts on time are freed from the obligation. They are no longer dunned by their creditors or burdened by guilt.

The Torah warns people to continue to make loans to the poor, even if it is getting close to the end of the seventh year. It assumes that we feel a natural sympathy for paupers, but sometimes check that feeling with second thoughts.

When there is among you an evyon from one of your brothers within one of your gates in your land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall not harden your heart and you shall not shut your hand to your brother the evyon. Rather, you shall truly open your hand to him, and you shall truly lend him what he lacks, so that it shall not be lacking for him. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

At this point, the Torah has progressed from the artificial mechanisms of tithing and the release of debt every seven years to simply giving the poor in your town what they need whenever they need it.

A token donation is not enough. “…you shall truly lend him what he lacks” had been interpreted to mean  not only food, but also anything from a kind word to the tools, training, and starter loan to take up a trade.

The passage in this week’s Torah portion  concludes:

Because the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land, therefore I myself command you, saying: Truly open your hand to your brother, to your oni, and to your  evyon in your land! (Deuteronomy 15:11)

oni (עָנִי) = the poor, the wretched, the  unfortunate, the humble.

This week’s Torah portion first says “there  should not be among you evyon”, then later acknowledges that since not everyone is generous enough, “the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land”.

giving b-wToday we still have evyon, paupers who are unable to earn a living and depend entirely on charity, and oni, people who have become poor because of bad luck. If the products of our planet were distributed evenly, everyone would have enough food and shelter. But the governments of the world still are not generous enough. And individuals with means still are not generous enough.

How often have you had an impulse to give to an unfortunate person, and then hardened your heart by deciding that this person did not deserve your money?

How often have you passed a beggar without opening your hand—either because you were saving those dollars for a latte, or because the beggar looked, smelled, or behaved like someone who might be unpleasant or dangerous?

I am cultivating a practice of opening my hand and giving a dollar to every beggar I pass, regardless of the judgments that pop up in my mind. I also donate a dollar to the county food share program every  time I buy groceries at the store that handles donations. I pay dues to my congregation, which provides the space for many people (including me) to serve as the equivalent of Levites. I pay taxes, of which a small percentage goes to programs that help the poor.

Yet I pass up countless other opportunities to donate to charities and good causes. (Even as I was writing this, a canvasser knocked on my door and I did not answer.) I do not have the time, I tell myself, I do not have the money. And how can I tell whether responding to this particular appeal would do any real good?

This week’s Torah portion says to make loans and gifts to the poor within your gates, the ones whom you encounter in your own life. That sounds reasonable, since you are more likely to know “what they truly lack”.

Yet I wonder what I should give to the people I know who are too handicapped to earn a living and who are not supported by their families. I do not have enough emotional strength to act as their friend or substitute family member, which is “what they truly lack”. So I settle for giving a token—a cookie, a ride, a smile—until the person becomes too difficult  and demanding.  Then I harden my heart and close my hand.

I would rather pay extra taxes for social programs.

A passage in  the book of Proverbs that describes the virtues the eshet chayil or “woman of valor” includes this couplet:

Her palm spreads open to the poor

And her hands stretch  out to the evyon. (Proverbs 31:20)

I am not a “woman of valor”. I am not strong enough to open my hands to all the evyon within my gates. I do not understand how to be an eshet chayil.

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