Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ki Teitsei (Haftarot)

“Sing o Barren”

The haftarah for Ki Tetsei is the same as that for Noah, or at least to its first ten verses (Isaiah 54:1-10; some read 54:1-55:5 for Noah), which we discussed in brief at the time. Its use there is based, both on the presence of a verse alluding to the Flood (“Is this not like the waters of Noah to me?”; 54:9) and a certain thematic parallel to the “inner drama” expressed in the flood, so to speak, of Divine anger and reconciliation. God was furious at and disappointed in mankind, punished them with near total destruction, but then turned to a new covenant, expressed in the symbol of the rainbow, involving acceptance of the human race with all its moral frailties.

Here, the haftarah is read in the context of the backwards-and-forwards dynamics of anger and reconciliation between God and Israel. Thus, we find here words of comfort to Israel, acknowledging that “in a small moment I abandoned you, but with great mercy shall I gather you in; in a moment of anger I hid my face from you, but with eternal love I shall show you mercy…” (vv. 7-8).

Prominent here are images of expansion and growth. Israel is likened to a barren, disconsolate woman, who shall yet shout for joy when she shall enlarge her tent and stretch out its curtains. From desolation and abandonment, she shall yet realize the blessing, “You will spread forth right and left, and your seed shall inherit many nations, and inhabit abandoned cities” (v. 3), with God Himself acting, so to speak, as her husband. What is significant here is not only the renewal of the covenant with God, or even the assurances of continued presence in the land, but the fact of simple physical expansion, of proliferation in numbers. The blessings to the patriarchs, “Your seed shall be like the stars of the sky… and like the sand of the sea,” are here reconfirmed.

We live in a strange period of time, an age full of paradoxes. Values that were seen in the past as self-evident are today subject to stringent criticism. Thus, we find a tendency today among certain liberal circles to play down the importance of the wish for demographic multiplication, or even to see such wishes as “atavistic,” if not chauvinistic, racist, and downright dangerous to the future of the human race. True, there is admittedly tremendous population growth today that taxes the resources of the earth, creating threats of starvation and malnutrition in much of the globe. It was this that prompted the emergence of the Zero Population Growth movement some years ago. However, in broad circles in Europe and America one encounters people who scorn the desire for biological continuity, and have no or excessively small families. We thus find the individualistic values of the European humanistic tradition carried to extreme and even absurd lengths.

In any event, such a drive, fulfilled within reason, is the very stuff and substance of any nation’s existence—certainly of one like the Jewish nation, which has known threats of decimation: both recently, in the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as at various other earlier times in the history of the Galut. Evidently, during the Babylonian exile, too, there was a certain sense of being threatened by demographic extinction. The numbers given in the book of Nehemiah, where the heads of the clans who returned to Zion can be listed by name in a page or two, speaks eloquently for the small size of the Jewish core group in those days.

In Jewish tradition, banei hayyei umezonai—offspring, life (i.e., health), and livelihood—are often listed as the three essential basic blessings in life, a kind of shorthand for the central concerns of personal petitional prayer. Biological continuity is a basic existential concern; barrenness is seen as one of the worst misfortunes, on an individual as on a communal level. Sarah, the other matriarchs, Hannah, all prayed for offspring; indeed, Hannah’s prayer for a child is seen as the archetype for all prayer (we will return to this subject before Rosh Hashana).

On the other hand, two chapters further along, Isaiah offers comfort to the eunuch, who thinks he is a “dry tree,” assuring him that he too has an important role, and will enjoy a memorial “better than sons and daughters” (56:3-4). Children, physical continuity, is a profound blessing, but an individual’s worth and value is ultimately determined by his own deeds and actions.

(Note: In the Italian rite, the haftarah for this Shabbat is 1 Samuel 17:1-37, describing the war against the Philistines, picking up on the subject of the opening section of the Torah portion.)


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