Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vayikra (Haftarah)

After a month of almost uninterrupted special sabbaths, accompanied by their special haftarot (and this author attempting to do justice to two, or at times three, different haftarot in one issue of Hitzei), we return to a “normal” Sabbath with one Torah scroll and one haftarah. (But not for long: next week we shall need to discuss the Sabbath of Passover Eve, the First Day of Passover and, if I am to do justice to my self-imposed task, the haftarah for the Second Day observed in Diaspora, etc.) In keeping with the systematic presentation of the various sacrificial offerings that is the theme of our Torah portion, this week’s haftarah, Isaiah 43:21-44:23, begins with a reference to sacrifices.

But that is not really the main theme of the haftarah. The first theme is sin and repentance—teshuva. It begins with the statement that Israel, “this people whom I have formed for myself,” in whom God has placed so much hope, are filled with iniquity. They do not serve Him with prayer and praises, nor offer Him sacrifices, but instead “weary Me with your iniquities (vv. 22-24), without these being exactly defined. Nevertheless, He assures them of the power of His forgiveness. “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins” (43:25).

There may also be an association here with the idea, possibly expressed here in an explicit way in the Bible for the first time, that atonement is not an automatic mechanism, activated by the bringing of sacrifices, but a freely-willed act of God, independent of sin-offerings and the like.

It is interesting that one of the main themes of Christian missionary polemics is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of this point. Their arguments often seem to be based on the assumption that Jews believe they need the blood of sacrificial animals to atone for sins. As the possibility for bringing offerings of absolution no longer exists—thus runs the argument—the situation is ripe for the solution of vicarious atonement, through the “mysteries” of christology. Yet already by the time of the earliest apostles, and certainly by that of Paul, the concept of teshuva as a parallel course to Yom Kippur atonement was well-known among Hazal (see, e.g., the final mishnah of Yoma).

This section concludes with the prophet’s assurances that, after erasing their sin, God will bless Israel, “like water poured out on thirsty ground,” and fill them with his spirit (44:1-5).

The second major theme of the haftarah is the folly of idolatry and, by contrast, the exclusivity of God’s rule. There is a detailed portrait of idolatry, ridiculing those who make and worship idols, through a detailed description of how they are fashioned by human beings: how from the same piece of wood used to make an idol he may make a fire with which to warm himself or barbeque a steak (vv. 9-20). In striking contrast to this, the God of Israel transcends time and space. “I am first and I am last, and other than me there is no god” (v. 6).

The haftarah concludes by returning once again to the theme of God’s forgiveness of sin—“I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist” (44:22)—and how the very mountains and trees will rejoice in the redemption of Israel (v. 23).


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