Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pesah (Haftarot)

1st Day of Pesah: Joshua’s Passover

The haftarot for both days of Passover—for the First Day, celebrated throughout the Jewish world, and for the Second Day, observed only in traditional communities in the Diaspora—relate to actual observances of Passover during the biblical period. In both cases, the passover described is the first observed in many years. The haftarah for the First Day, Joshua 5:2-6:1, 27, describes the observance of Pesah by the Israelites almost immediately following the crossing of the Jordan, at the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert. They had of course observed the Passover in Egypt, and during the first year after from the Exodus, shortly after the erection of the sanctuary (Num 9:1-5), but thereafter they ceased doing so. Here, prior to offering the Passover, all the males needed to be circumcised, since by the end of the fortieth year the old generation had died out and the new generation born in the desert had come to manhood’s estate, and these were not circumcised. We are told how Joshua did so, using “flint knives.” Thus, the two “covenants of blood”— the blood of circumcision and the blood of the slaughtering of the paschal lamb—were performed in tandem (as they were in Egypt, according to tradition). The chapter goes on to refer to how, thereafter, the manna ceased and they ate of the produce of the land, and concludes with Joshua’s encounter with a mysterious figure described as “the commander of the Lords’ army.”

2nd Day (Diaspora): King Josiah’s Passover

The haftarah for the 2nd day of Passover, observed only in the Diaspora, takes us to the last century of the First Temple period: to the reign of Josiah, a generation or two before the eventual destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians (2 Kings 23:1 [or4] - 9; 21-25). Here, we are again told of the observance of the Passover for the first time in many years, “since [before] the days of the judges.” This was part of the famous Josianic Reform, the renewal of religious life by that king, “who returned to the Lord with all his heart and all his soul.” It is told here that he publicly read a copy of the Torah which one of the priests had discovered in the Temple, after it had evidently been in obscurity for long centuries. He ordered the destruction of idols and other pagan practices, and reintroduced long dormant observances, such as that of Passover. The Bible does not give a clear answer to the question as to how such a basic institution could have been so utterly neglected for so long; to do now will take us too far afield at this point.

Shabbat Hol Hamoed—Ezekiel’s Vision of the Dry Bones

The haftarah for the Sabbath of Hol ha-Moed is the vision of the Dry Bones from Ezekiel 37:1-14. Its choice is based upon the association of the Exodus from Egypt, “the former redemption,” with the future messianic age, “the latter redemption.” This choice is interesting. Eschatology, concern with the End of Days, is a major motif in Jewish thought, in Midrash, in the prayers, and elsewhere; however, presumably because it has not happened yet, there is no Jewish holiday specifically devoted to this theme. Instead, various allusions to the idea appear in the liturgy on various appropriate-seeming occasions.

In fact, the theme of eschatological hopes influences the choice of haftarot on at least three clusters of times: Pesah, when, in addition to this haftarah, the haftarah read on the Last Day of Passover in the Diaspora is concerned with these matters; Sukkot; and the period following Tisha b’Av. On Sukkot, which unlike Pesah and Shavuot does not commemorate any specific historical event, there are two strikingly eschatological haftarot: the haftarah for the First Day of Sukkot, from Zechariah 14, conveying a vision of God standing on the Mount of Olives and bringing about apocalyptic changes; and the haftarah for Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot, the vision of the battle of Gog and Magog, taken from a passage that appears shortly after the haftarah under discussion here (Ezekiel 38:18–39:16). The theme of redemption is also appropriate to this third, concluding festival of the year, as the logical sequel to the motifs Creation (i.e., in Pesah, as birth of the nation) and Revelation (i.e., Shavuot). The “Ingathering of the fruits” may be read metaphorically as Messiah. As for the haftarot of the period preceding and following Tisha b’Av: these focus intensively on the dialectic of Exile and redemption, according to a very ancient custom already reflected in the structure of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana.

To return to our haftarah: Ezekiel describes how he is taken in a vision to a valley filled with dry bones, an image suggesting hopelessness and total lack of vitality. “Can these bones live?” God answers that he should prophesy to these bones and tell them that “I shall place in you spirit, and you shall live” (v. 5). Before his eyes the desolate scene is transformed, as the bones acquire sinew and flesh, are filled with spirit, and return to life, “a very great host.”

The description of the vision (vv. 1-10) is followed by its interpretation: “These bones are all the House of Israel,” etc. (v. 11-14). The image is a powerful one for national rebirth against overwhelming odds. Indeed, during the modern period, this chapter was taken as a poignant symbol by the Jewish national movement. The situation addressed by Ezekiel, after at most a decade or two of national dormancy, pales in comparison to the millennia-long exile that preceded the Zionist revival. The Haskalah poet Naphtali Herz Imber took one of the central themes for his poem Hatikvah, which was to become the anthem of the State of Israel, from this chapter. Inverting the verse in which the House of Israel complain that “our hope is lost, we are doomed” (v. 11), he wrote “our hope is not yet lost” (od lo avdah tikvatenu)—the phrase from which he also took the title.

Interestingly, the second half of the passage speaks of “opening your graves” and bringing the exiles to the soil of Israel. Unless this is meant to be read as a metaphorical expression, this passage, appearing as it does within the interpretive part of the prophecy, seems to express belief in and hope for bodily resurrection of the dead (thus Radak). This motif is, of course, a major motif in Jewish eschatology, considered by many to be a cardinal article of belief.

Seventh Day—David’s Hymn of Victory

The haftarah for the Seventh Day of Passover is King David’s Song of Victory, “on the day that God saved him from the hands of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul” (2 Samuel 22; this song also appears, with only minor variations, as Psalm 18). The Torah reading for the festival is the account of the splitting of the Red Sea (Exod 13:17-15:26), which according to tradition occurred on this day; this reading is crowned by the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:1-19). Our chapter was selected as haftarah for this festival because it too is a song of praise to God following military victory. There are only two such songs in all of the books of the Prophets; the other, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), serves as haftarah for Beshalah, when the same chapter is read from the Torah in the course of the regular annual cycle. The present chapter is in turn read again as haftarah for Shabbat Ha’azinu (when it does not coincide with Shabbat Shuvah), when the second major poem in the Torah, the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), is read.

The Song may be seen as a kind of summing up of David’s life, at least in terms of its military aspect. The mention in the heading, “from the hand of all of his enemies and from… Saul,” is a bit strange. Immediately after Saul’s death, David eulogized him, keening for both him and his son Jonathan in what is certainly the most famous elegiac poem in the Bible (2 Sam 1:17-27; if I had my druthers, this chapter would have been included in the haftarah cycle). But at this point, looking back in retrospect at his entire life, he seems to have again thought of Saul primarily as a threatening and dangerous figure in his life. (On the other hand, conspicuous by its absence is any reference to the hard time given him by his sons, notably Absalom and Adonijah. Perhaps the most awkward incidents in David’s life related to the palace revolutions of these sons, impatient for the throne. Could that be the reason for their omission here: that their memory was just too painful? But see also my comments in HY II on the haftarot for Hayyei Sarah and Vayehi.)

Unlike the prophecies proper, read for their ideas, theology and moral passion, or the narrative sections of the Prophets, where our focus is on the events or the personalities of the figures involved, this song is best read as poetry, in terms of its poetics, imagery, language, etc. The ideas expressed are fairly straightforward and already familiar to us from many of the hymns of personal prayer and thanksgiving of the Psalter. The song begins with the author expressing trust and confidence in God as his rock and fortress (vv. 2-4), coupled with a description of the dire straits in which he found himself, using imagery of water: “waves of death… torrents of damnation” (vv. 5-7). These are followed by descriptions of Gods’ power and His mysteriousness, shown through images of natural upheaval, fire, and darkness (vv. 8-16): “He mounted a cherub and flew… darkness around him… thick clouds, huge thunderheads.” The central section describes how he succeeded in overcoming his enemies, thanks to God’s constant help, granted him “because He has delighted in me” (v. 20). This is described as the result of Divine favor, resulting from his own righteousness and his constant awareness of God’s ways, i.e., His laws and statutes (vv. 26-28). The poet then turns to general praise of “the God whose ways are perfect… Who is God except the Lord?” (vv. 31ff.). And again, detailing how God helped him in battle: “training my hands for battle… setting my feet firm… making my enemies turn tail to me… grinding them down like dust of the earth, crushing them like mire in the streets”; as well as refusing to answer their prayers, but rather helping along their downfall (vv. 34-46). And finally, the peroration: “The Lord lives, blessed is my rock!…. The God who has given me vengeance…. Therefore I shall sing your praises among the nations…. He is a tower of salvation to his king, and performs kindness to his anointed one, to David and his seed forever” (vv. 47-51).

One cannot write about this hymn without mentioning the final verse, familiar to observant Jews because of its use in the Grace After Meals and the textual variations (Magdil / Migdol Yeshuot Malko) that are part of the Sabbath/weekday rhythm of Jewish life. Whether this custom is based on a careless misunderstanding of an abbreviation or a deeper reason is subject to debate. Some scholars claim that the use of the term Migdol rather than Magdil on Shabbat is based on a gloss in an old manuscript, where next to the word Magdil it read bsh”b Migdol. This was meant to be read as “be-Shmuel Bet (“in Second Samuel,” i.e., as opposed to the reading in Psalm 18), but was mistakenly interpreted as be-shabbat (“on the Sabbath [one says]…”).

An alternative, homiletical explanation is that the verb Magdil, “He makes great,” is suitable to the weekdays, with their active, dynamic character, while the noun Migdol, “a tower,” suggesting stability, completion, stasis, is more appropriate to the contemplative, passive mood of the Shabbat (thus, inter alia, Rav Adin Steinsaltz in his “Bentcher”). Whether the custom is erroneous or such was the original intention, it has become rooted in Jewish practice, providing “equal time” to two equally valid and coherent readings (thus Baer in Siddur Avodat Yisrael, pp. 561-562).

Eighth Day (Diaspora): “The Lion Shall Lie Down with the Lamb”

The haftarah for the Eight and Last Day of Passover, observed in the Diaspora alone, is Isaiah 10:32–12:6. The haftarah opens with a few verses describing the halt of the Assyrian forces at the town of Nob outside Jerusalem in 721 BCE; aside from their textual proximity, it’s not clear why the haftarah begins there, rather than with 11:1. The main part of the haftarah is a messianic vision, in which a “shoot from the stock of Jesse”—i.e., a Davidic scion—shall grow forth; he will be filled by God with wisdom, understanding, and other good qualities, enabling him to introduce a reign of equity and righteousness throughout the land. The vision continues with a picture of universal peace, even in the animal kingdom: the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the calf and the lion will gambol together alongside the fatted bull, a small child will play over an asp’s hole without coming to harm, and “They shall not do evil or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Lord like water running to the sea” (11:9). The remainder of the haftarah describes how God will recover the remnants of his people from various far-flung lands; moreover, the divided factions of the Israelite people, Ephraim and Judah, will no longer be jealous or harass one another; Israel will enjoy victory over all its enemies; and the selection concludes with a brief song of praise that will be recited to God ”on that day.”

This vision of eschatological peace and harmony is one of the best known parts of the Bible, one that has entered the lexicon of memorable quotations of Western culture. There is something enormously appealing in the image of the wolf lying down with the lamb, the bear and the cow grazing peacefully together—in brief, the total disappearance of the violence that so plagues our world. But there is also something very problematic from the theological and philosophical point of view. The haftarah from Ezekiel 37, discussed above, is (if we disregard the problematic verses about bodily resurrection) essentially a metaphor for a natural process, one that lies within the realm of ordinary human experience: the ingathering of exiles, the political renascence of a defeated, exiled and demoralized nation, etc. The present chapter from Isaiah, by contrast, involves a fundamental change in nature. The enmity among living creatures, whose biological nature is to prey on others for their survival, will be eliminated. Violence itself will disappear. The image portrayed is no less than that of a return to the conditions that prevailed in the Garden of Eden before Adam’s sin. What is required here is a fundamental change in the human (and animal) condition: ultimately, the abolition of free choice, of almost all that makes us human.

One of the predominant modern lines of exegesis of the story of Eden is as a metaphor for the emergence of human beings from childlike dependence upon God to moral maturity and responsibility. While the eating of the fruit was a sin, in the sense of it being an act of disobedience to God, it was an inevitable, necessary step in the realization by human beings of their own nature; without it, we would have remained perpetual children, lacking in the entire dimension of free-will that makes life spiritually meaningful. A well-known Rabbinic dictum makes a similar point. One day, in response to the supplications of some rabbi, God “slaughtered” the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Urge. Immediately, no tree bore fruit, no chicken laid eggs, no person felt like getting up in the morning to go to work (Yoma 69b; and cf. Genesis Rabbah 9:7). The moral of this little tale is that the Yetzer Hara—which is basically tantamount to biological instinct, i.e., sexuality and aggression—is necessary for all life, and certainly for all creative activity or initiative.

It is possible to talk about natural and supernatural images of redemption within Judaism. There is a school—which is the logical continuation of this chapter in Isaiah—which emphasizes the supernatural nature of the Eschaton. God will miraculously ingather the exiles, he will defeat Israel’s enemies, he will bring the Third Temple down ready-made from Heaven—and from then on people will sit around, engage in the pursuit of Torah and knowledge of God, with all their needs effortlessly cared for: delicious cakes and rolls will grow on trees, waiting to be picked.

But there is also a naturalistic school, as well. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was fond of quoting the Rambam’s statement that “there is no difference between the days of Messiah and the present but the subjugation [of Israel] to other kingdoms.” The Messianic age will be a continuation of history as we know it, but somehow ”redeemed.”

More generally, there are clearly different streams within Judaism, with different approaches to this as to other problems. Certainly, there is a major school that is rooted in the supernatural, in miracles, in that which is “above nature.” Yet there is also another kind of faith that is possible, a more rational approach within Judaism generally, that is reluctant to make rash statements that fly in the face of what we know about the world. It is often thought that religious faith must be equated with credulity, with the ability to believe the most outrageous propositions about God, the world, holy men, etc. However, there is also an option that translates emunah not so much as “faith” or “belief,” but rather as “faithfulness” or even as “commitment” (and I have neither space nor time to elaborate here).


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