Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tzav - Shabbat Hagadol (Haftarot)

Tzav: “for I did not speak to your forefathers concerning burnt-offerings”

The haftarah for Parshat Tzav (not read on those years that it coincides with Shabbat Hagadol), is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23. Its choice as haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, which talks at length about the detailed rules governing sacrifices, seems rather bizarre, as it approaches them in a totally negative way: “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh; for I did not speak to your fathers nor command them, on the day they went out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices” (vv. 21-22). Rather, God wishes that man should listen to his voice, abjure idols, practice justice and mercy towards others. The haftarah is essentially one long elaboration on this theme, predicting a dire punishment to the people if they do not change their ways.

19th century Liberal Judaism saw in such passages as these the peak of the ethical sensitivity that was the hallmark of “authentic,” “prophetic” Judaism. Many a Liberal Rabbi waxed poetic in explicating the higher ethical and moral values implicit in this critique of the sacrificial system, which they invidiously compared with the “primitive,” “ritualistic” emphasis of the section of the Torah from Leviticus. The implied comparison between their own modern, progressive form of Judaism and the hide-bound ritualism of those still committed to the ancient ceremonies was obvious.

I ought to note here that it is not my intention here to mock the importance of social and ethical concerns. Rather, it seems to me that classical Reform was more motivated by the desire to become good bourgeois citizens of the modern polis than by true passion for the realization of a radical vision of a different type of society. They tended rather towards a safe, middle class liberalism, which largely accepted the injustices of the status quo, contenting itself with symbolic, fashionable gestures of support for the proper causes. To my mind, this emphasis in the modern period on “ethical monotheism” has led to a lifeless, desiccated Judaism. After all, if the only concern of ultimate value is improving society, ameliorating the lot of the poor and unfortunate and oppressed, surely liberal or radical political movements can do the job better than the synagogue?

What then did the authors of the Massorah who arranged the haftarot have in mind in juxtaposing two seemingly diametrically opposed readings? It would seem that they saw the two moments—the Lawgiver who went into painstaking detail about the proper procedure for offering the sacrifices, and the prophet who thundered “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad rivers of oil?” (Micah 6:7)—as somehow complementary, and deliberately placed them together. Two weeks ago, in our discussion of the haftarah for Ki Tisa, we touched upon the overlapping of the priestly and prophetic functions in the persona of Elijah. Likewise, the prophet Ezekiel was one whose vision seems inextricably mixed with his consciousness of the Temple, of the demand for purity, both formal-bodily and spiritual, of his own standing as a member of the priestly clan, as well as his stringent moral demands. I would like to suggest that the two moments—the priestly and the prophetic—ultimately stem from the same or a similar source.

The prophet was moved, first and foremost, by a consciousness of, a sensitivity to, an awareness of the presence of the Divine, in a concrete, tangible manner. In First Samuel (and elsewhere?), we encounter the phenomenon of ecstatic, mantic prophecy, of groups of people, called b’nei nevi’im, who engaged in various practices, including music, that culminated in a mystical state of rapture. Through this, they evidently experienced a sense of closeness and intimacy with God, of Presence, even of being addressed by the Divine. In the case of the more highly developed and cultivated individuals among them—those whom we know as “literary prophets,” but not only them—this led to the certainty of being chosen by God to deliver a message to His people. What moved them was not only theological belief: the somewhat cold, distant, abstract conviction of ethical principle. Rather, they felt an overwhelming passion for justice that came clear, tangible knowledge of being touched by God (see on this A. J. Heschel’s The Prophets, where he speaks of “divine empathy”).

Similarly, this selfsame experience of being overwhelmed by God’s Presence, of being swept up by the Divine, can lead to the priestly moment—the compelling need to engage in an act of worship or service: as a sign of appreciation and gratitude, of acknowledgement, of submission and self-abnegation, even, if one dare call it thus, fellowship with God in the case of the shelamim. Hasidic texts speak of avodat ha-korbanot in ethical terms, as “sacrificing ones own animality,” even to the point of noting that there are those who are by nature bulls and those who are sheep, each of whom need to offer the animal appropriate to their own bullish or sheepish nature. Another way of looking at the polarity between the “prophetic” and the “priestly” is in terms of inner and outer work. The classical prophets are concerned with the external, societal dimension of human existence. The priests—under which rubric one may include, in the broad sense, men of halakhah, spiritual teachers, rabbis—are concerned with inner work—working on ones self, on the stubbornness of ones own heart and, ideally, changing ones heart to submit to God. There is thus, if you wish, a seamless continuum beginning with an almost mystical sense of the Divine Presence, leading to the prophetic moment of a passionately delivered ethical message, to the ritual moment of service of God in mitzvot, including the theocentrically-oriented mitzvot of the sacrifices—and returning full cycle to the start. (Note the combination of meditative and philosophical, cognitive moments in Maimonides’ description of the preparation for prophecy in Chapter 7 of Yesodei ha-Torah.)

Interestingly, the haftarah concludes with a verse that integrates the two elements of Divine knowledge and the pursuit of justice: “Who shall be praised? He who knows Me, that I the Lord do righteousness and justice in the land” (Jer 9:23): a verse that serves Maimonides as focus for the conclusion of his magnum opus, Guide for the Perplexed (III.54).

Shabbat Hagadol: “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet”

Shabbat Hagadol is one of those handful of sabbaths during the year which, even though they do not have any special Torah reading for Maftir, still has a special haftarah and identity of its own, expressed in its name. Other such are Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and Shabbat Hazon, preceding Tisha b’Av (the latter actually doesn’t have a ”special” haftarah, because the calendar is fixed in such a way that Tisha b’Av always falls at the same point in the Torah cycle, all of the haftarot both before and after it over a span of ten weeks being chosen to express the Jewish historical dialectic of Exile and Redemption, of catastrophe and consolation). Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat Hagadol, preceding Yom Kippur and Pesah, are also set aside as the occasions for major Torah lectures or sermons by the leading rabbis of each place, in preparation for the holiday. Indeed, in old-time Jewish communities, in Europe and in North Africa, these two sabbaths were almost the only occasions when the rabbi spoke publicly.

The haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol is taken from the very last chapter of the Prophets: Malachi 3:3-24. The usual explanation for this selection is a bit strange, and rather technical: on the fourth and seventh year of the cycle of tithes, Passover serves as the final deadline for bringing all tithes to their appropriate destination. This haftarah refers inter alia to the sin of the Jewish people in failing to bring the tithes as they should, and calls upon them to “bring all the tithes to the storehouse” (v. 10). Another explanation relates to the concluding verse, forecasting the ultimate redemption to be heralded by the prophet Elijah “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

The main thrust of the haftarah is chastisement of the Jewish people, and a call to repentance: “you have not changed, of sons of Jacob. Since the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my laws and not kept them” (vv. 6-7). Much of the passage is a kind of dialogue, in which the people ask as if innocently, “In what have we sinned?… For what need we to repent?”

The latter part of the haftarah, by contrast, is filled with promises of “pouring out blessing until you say ‘Enough!’” (v. 10), and in which God will make a sharp distinction between ”the righteous and the wicked, he who serves God and he that does not serve Him” (v. 18). It concludes with the vision of the coming of Elijah “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” One feels in these words, written not long after the return to Zion (Malachi is grouped together with Haggai and Zechariah as one of the three last, post-exilic prophets), the beginning of the mood of the apocalyptic literature, which was to give far more intense and colorful expression to the End of Days during the centuries that followed.


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