Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ekev (Haftarot)

“And Zion said, ‘the Lord has abandoned me’”

This haftarah, for the second of the seven weeks, opens on a pessimistic note: “And Zion said, ‘The Lord has abandoned me’” (Is 49:14-51:3); the balance of the haftarah, though, is essentially an enumeration of the reasons why, in fact, Zion has not been abandoned. We shall return to this presently.

The opening words of these seven haftarot are interpreted as a kind of ongoing dialogue between God and the people of Israel and/or Zion. “Comfort you, comfort you, my people,” God begins (40:1). To this Zion replies, painfully, “the Lord has abandoned me” (49:14). Once again God approaches her, this time with words that acknowledge her suffering: “Afflicted and storm tossed, not comforted, I shall set your stones in crystal, and lay your foundation with precious jewels” (54:11). The fourth week, the reply is extended and expanded: “I, I am he who surely comforts you” (51:12). And yet again, God turns to her with compassion and empathy for her bereft state: “Sing out, O barren one who has not borne child. Burst out in song… for the children of the desolate are more numerous than of she who is married!” (54:1); and, in more encouraging tones, “Rise up, shine, for your light has come” (60:1). Until, finally, Zion accepts the comforting words, and concludes the series of seven with a song of her own, “I shall surely rejoice in the Lord!” (61:10).

Now for a brief summary of the argument of the haftarah. There is one central, simple but powerful message: that there is a deep, unbreakable connection between God and Israel, even deeper than that between a mother and child. If we can possibly imagine that a mother would forget her own child, who sucked at her breasts and whom she bore in her own womb, even so God will not forget us. This relationship goes deeper than the romantic metaphor of the lovers found so abundantly elsewhere—in Hosea, in Ezekiel 16, in Jeremiah 2, in the traditional reading of Song of Songs, and in many other places. For a culture such as ours, in which disproportionate emphasis is placed on the romantic, sexual bond as the ultimate in human intimacy, as the most meaningful possible connection between people, this reminder of the natural connection between parents and children is particularly apt.

Interestingly, God here addresses, not the people Israel, but Zion, a term which seems to be used here as the poetic personification of the city of Jerusalem. “You are engraved upon the palms of My hands, your walls are constantly before me” (v. 16). The people of Israel are in turn the “children of Zion,” while she is the anxious, doting mother who intercedes on their behalf. (In the liturgy for Tisha b’Av, there is a striking kinah in which Zion appears as a bereft, shrouded female figure encountered by the prophet Jeremiah. See “Az bimlot sefek yafah ke-Tirzah.”) The exiles shall return, while those who swallowed them up are gone. As in Chapter 40 (Nahamu), God holds up a signet for the sons and daughters to return from afar. And, God promises, He will redeem them from the mighty and the tyrants, from whom no one could imagine being freed once fallen into captivity (49:24-26)

Verse 17, “meharsayikh umahrivayikh mimeikh yetse’u,” often used in Israeli public discourse as an elegant, biblical way of calling someone a fifth columnist, as if it means “those who destroy and lay you waste come from within you,” in fact means the exact opposite: those who lay you waste and destroy, the alien enemies, are now departing, leaving the city free for healthy reconstruction. Chapter 50 involves a measure of chastisement. I have divorced your mother, and sold you to my creditors, for your own sins. Meanwhile, you have forgotten that I have the power to redeem you as well. God has taught me lessons, taught me how to speak, how to listen, how to look at life, not to rebel, and even to suffer in patience, where need be.

50:6 foreshadows the description of the Suffering Servant that appears a bit later: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who plucked at the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” This verse, like the more elaborate development of this theme in Chapter 53, is used by non-Jewish theology as if it is “christological,” but is in fact more appropriate to Jewish history. The picture painted is one of shame, of contempt, of ridicule and, even today, it seems, of being subjected to a double standard. We seem to be undergoing today a form of rejection, of the Jews not being accepted in family of nations, but by more subtle, “high-minded” means. I have elsewhere criticized Israel’s policy regarding the Palestinian people—particularly the ordinary man in the street in Gaza and Ramallah and Khan Yunis, who bear the brunt of often draconian restrictions, blockades, cutting off of access to vital supplies, etc. But which of the nations of Europe, who make a show of being so righteous and ethical in condemning Israel, would behave with more or even the same restraint were they to be confronted with such terrorist attacks on its civilian population, particularly after protracted peace negotiations and attempts to reach a modus vivendi?

The haftarah concludes (51:1-2) with a call to remember from whence you came, and the rock from which you are hewn—Abraham and Sarah. The message is not to despair, because you come from solid stock. It concludes optimistically with 51:3: “For God has comforted s Zion, and made her desert like a paradise, so there will be only joy and happiness….”


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