Friday, January 20, 2006

Shemot (Haftarah)

“In time to come Jacob shall take root”

There are two widely-known customs for the opening Shabbat of the Book of Exodus: the Ashkenazim read Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23, while the Sephardim read Jeremiah 1:1-2:3. This latter reading is read by the Ashkenazim during the summer time as the first of the three haftarot of “catastrophe” that precede Tisha b’Av; we shall discuss it then. Here I shall merely note that, alongside stern passages of rebuke, this reading also alludes in passing to the period in the desert, following the Exodus, as a model for Divine-human love—hence its appropriateness to this Shabbat.

The haftarah read by the Ashkenazim, while also predominantly one of rebuke, contains promises of redemption, analogous to the Exodus. It promises that those who smote them will be smitten even more so and that, in the end, the nations who had beaten Israel shall be “threshed out like grain… from the Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt.” This section ends with the great promise to ingather in the holy mountain of Jerusalem “all those who were lost in the land of Assyria and driven to the land of Egypt” (Isa 27:13). In brief, a prophecy of return to the land and of the ultimate vindication of Israel.

But the second half of the haftarah, 28:1-13, turns to a biting, sarcastic criticism of “the drunkards of Ephraim”— the priests and prophets of the northern kingdom, who “reel” and “stagger“ with wine, spending their days in endless feasting and drinking, enjoying an illusory sense of well-being and material wealth, oblivious to the approaching destruction. In their arrogance, they have made themselves deaf to the words of the Torah and to the rebuke of the prophets; for them, the word of the Lord is fragmented, meaningless, like a series of broken, trite sentences: “precept upon precept, line upon line, a little here, a little there” (tzav latzav, kav lakav, ze’eir sham, ze’eir sham). The picture here is interesting: of people who have become unable to respond meaningfully to the word of God, not through a process of outright rejection or ignoring it, such as that which might be found in paganism or atheism, but by seeing it as trivial, irrelevant, unimportant. This image could easily be applied to the contemporary situation: there are those who ostensibly believe in God’s word, but domesticate it, making it into something “nice,” “safe,” “tame”: a pleasant leisure time, cultural activity, but without the radical edge of the demands—ethical, intellectual, and spiritual—that it makes it upon a person. (To avoid any misapprehension: this blunting of the edge of the living word of God is felt among both the observant and non-observant public.)


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