Thursday, February 16, 2006

Yitro (Haftarah)

“I saw the Lord… and his trains filled the Sanctuary”

The haftarah for Shabbat Yitro, as would be expected for the portion in which we read of the Sinaitic epiphany, is a brief but powerful description of one of the most striking mystical visions in the entire Bible: the account of Isaiah’s call in Isaiah 6:1-7;6; 9:5-6. (When the same selection is read on the festival of Shavuot, the haftarah is the “grandfather” of all Jewish mystical visions, Ezekiel 1.)

Although this is the sixth chapter of his book, this passage in a sense marks the real beginning of the Book of Isaiah, or at least of that prophet’s mission. The chapter begins, without any introduction, by showing the prophet standing in the Temple and seeing “God seated on a high and lofty throne, his trains filling the Sanctuary”; He is surrounded by six-winged fiery angels (serafim) who call out to one another, “Holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” Upon seeing this sight, and feeling the very pillars of the building shake, Isaiah is filled with dread and terror; how can he, a mere mortal, “a man of impure lips,” continue to live after seeing “the King, the Lord of Hosts”? As if in response to this, one of the angels purifies him by touching his lips with a burning coal taken from the altar, and tells him that his sin is forgiven.

At that point we turn to the prophetic call. God is seeking a messenger to bear a message to the people: “Whom shall I send?” He asks. Isaiah volunteers for the prophetic mission: “Here I am! Send me.” God then conveys to him a very harsh and stern message of rebuke to take to the people: “They hear but do not understand; they see, but do not know. The people’s heart is become thick, its ears heavy and its eyes shut…” and ending with a prophecy of utter desolation of the land, until eventually but “a tenth” will remain in it.

These few verses present us with an astonishing picture: of God depicted in concrete, corporeal terms, as an enormous, imposing figure seated on a throne, surrounded by an entourage of heavenly beings proclaiming his holiness. For many of us, steeped in the rationalism of Maimonides and of modern Jewish philosophy, such blatantly anthropomorphic pictures seem little short of blasphemy. A major reorientation is required to realize that this, too, is part of our tradition, and that such images are a valid option for the Bible; after all, this is none other than the first of the major prophets speaking!

As for Isaiah’s experience itself: Haviva Pedaya, Professor of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University, in a major phenomenological study, writes of the tension within religious experience between the impulse to draw close to God and to experience His presence, and to even see Him in a vision, and the impulse toward withdrawal from such visions—both because of the (socio-religious) prohibition against it, and the sense of fear and dread experienced through the overwhelming power, strangeness, and “Wholly Otherness” of the Divine. (This is the phenomenon referred to in Jewish mysticism as ratzo vashov, “going back and forth,”; a phrase, appropriately enough, taken from Ezekiel 1: 14). The holy is surrounded by limits, by certain boundary lines which a person may not cross. Pedaya explains that it is precisely these liminal experiences that attract the mystic; the peak of religious experience occurs at the moment of approaching that which is proscribed, when one comes to the very edge of the holy. In Judaism, this limit is especially connected with the act of seeing God. And indeed, at the very moment of the mystic vision, the person falls on his face, in a swoon or in a gesture of fear, overwhelmed by the power of the Presence. Or, as did Isaiah, he reflects upon his own smallness and insignificance.

Pedaya then goes on to note an interesting contrast in this respect between Isaiah and Ezekiel. Isaiah, in response to the Divine vision, turns to a reflective, inward-looking purview, seeing himself as it were as he must appear in the Divine eyes, in all his human mortality and imperfection and smallness. Ezekiel, by contrast, is completely swept up in the experience of the Divine presence, undergoing, if you will, total self-abnegation, an utter lack of awareness of his own self or his ego. These reactions are found in later Jewish types: Isaiah’s reflective response is analogous to the existential position taken by Rav Soloveitchik, or the intense self-criticism of the Mussar teachers, while Ezekiel is more comparable to the Hassid, who may experience a form of all-embracing religious ecstasy in which the self is forgotten and, like the Maggid of Mezhirech, the “Shekhinah speaks out of his mouth.”

There are several other areas in the halakhah in which holiness relates to “boundaries” or “liminality.” For example, there are numerous restrictions surrounding the Ineffable Name of God, which was never uttered except by the High Priest under certain exceptional circumstances—albeit there were Kabbalists who meditated upon the four-letter name and other holy names, as a form of mystical practice, perhaps to attain an ecstatic state. Again, the Temple Mount (or, in the classic situation, the Holy of Holies) is never entered, again, precisely because of their great holiness and the sense of Divine presence connected with the place.

Following this powerful scene of the epiphany of God in the Temple, the haftarah continues with the description of a practical political situation that follows it in Ch. 7: Rezin king of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel make a military pact against the kingdom of Judah. King Ahaz is alarmed, his heart “shaking, like trees shaking in the wind.” At this juncture Isaiah is called upon to deliver his first message to the political leadership of the nation: one of calm and confidence in face of these two “smoky brands.”

It is not clear why this section is read as part of the haftarah; it feels here rather like an anticlimax. Possibly, simply because it was there; or, more specifically, to fulfill the rule that a haftarah should have at least 21 verses (but there are many exceptions to this rule anyhow). In any event, this matter is in turn dropped in the middle, and the haftarah (in the Ashkenazic rite) jumps forward to conclude with 9:5-6. Christian polemics have made much of these two verses, but they are in fact simply assurances to the people that a child (the reference is to Hezekiah) will be born who will grow up to be a decent king, providing the people with leadership that will relieve them of their dismay and constant troubles. As a sign of this, he bears a name symbolic of the blessing to be expected in the near future.

This addition reflects an interesting practice sometimes found in the haftarot: namely, that unlike the Torah reading, a haftarah may at times contain verses that are not contiguous to one another in their original context. That is, one may jump over a chapter or so to continue in a new place, providing that the readings are all from the same book. Most often, this involves only two or three verses, chosen to give a festive ending to the reading; but on Shabbat Shuvah, we read a compendium from three different books of the “Twelve”—Hosea, Joel, and Micah—which are for this purpose all considered to be a single book. This rule is based upon the Mishnah (m. Megillah 4.4; b. Megilla 24a): “One may skip in the prophetic reading, but one may not skip in the Torah.”

At the end, I would like to add what is perhaps the most obvious and familiar feature of this chapter: the phrase Kadosh kadosh kadosh… (“Holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with his glory”), which serves as the central axis of the Kedusha, one of the most ancient and important Jewish liturgical texts (mentioned not only in the Talmud, but also in liturgical compositions found in the Dead Sea Scrolls). The notion of the Kedusha, which most synagogue-going Jews take for granted, is in fact quite interesting: these verses may only be recited in the presence of a minyan, in a special section introduced into the Reader’s Repetition of the Amidah. The implicit idea seems to be that God’s utter holiness and transcendence are too awesome to be uttered by an individual, at least in a framework in which they are addressed to God as praises, but only among a properly constituted community or congregation of Jews; in turn, this group of ten, when gathered together in worship, somehow imitate or replicate the angelic choir whom, according to midrash, gather daily to celebrate God’s holiness.

The theology of the verse is also significant. The Kedusha itself alludes to a certain polarity of transcendence and immanence—both between this verse and the phrase “Blessed is the glory of the Lord from his place” taken from Ezekiel 3:12 (which is in fact tagged on to the haftarah for Shavuot from Ezekiel 1, the counterpart to Isaiah 6), and within this verse itself. God is unutterably, triply “holy”—removed, distant, far away from the world, utterly ineffable, mysterious, beyond human comprehension, dwelling in the hidden recesses of infinity as Deus Absconditus (itself a concept that taxes the human imagination); but also: “the whole earth is full of his glory”—He is present in every rock, in every tree, in every cow and mouse and bird and worm, indeed, in our every thought and in every breath we take. This manifestation within the finite, the corporeal, which is often thought of as a “lower” level of Presence that that of Ein Sof, “God as He is in Himself,” is what we mean by His “Glory.”


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