Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Shoftim (Haftarot)

“I, it is I, who comfort you”

The haftarah for Shoftim, the fourth and middle one in the series of seven “haftarot of consolation,” is taken from Isaiah 51:12-52:12, and opens with an assurance from God that “I myself shall comfort you.” The people are told not to fear mortal human beings, “who are like grass”; a contrast is drawn between the frailty and vulnerability of even the most powerful and seemingly invincible of human enemies, and the infinite power of God, who protects Israel. Once again, the motif of God as Creator is invoked (“who stretches out the heavens… who stirs up the sea and makes its waves roar…), this time to illustrate that, if He has such power, then surely, having said “you are my people,” he can also redeem you.

Verses 17-23 elaborate the message that the days of suffering and captivity are over; paradoxically, this is reinforced by the graphic description of the people’s former suffering (“devastation and destruction… your sons lie, faint, at the head of every street”)—phrases similar to those which, in other contexts, are used as prophetic warnings and admonition. Precisely because they have drunk to the full “the cup of staggering the bowl of [Divine] wrath,” they may now expect God to turn to them with love and compassion. (This image, I believe, also has certain halakhic ramifications. The four cups of wine drunk at the Passover Seder are based, not only on the positive figure of the four languages of redemption, but are also so-to-speak the reverse side of the cups of Divine anger, negated in the Divine acts of redemption.)

The latter half of the haftarah begins with a wake up call addressed to Zion (52:1ff.): “put on your garments of beauty and strength… shake off the dust and loosen your bonds…” Then, in verse 7, as in Nahamu, we once again encounter the vision of the herald standing on the mountain and the watchmen lifting up their voice in song—imagery singularly appropriate to a city surrounded by mountains, like Jerusalem.

Many of the images and figures used here are familiar to synagogue-going Jews from the poem Lekha Dodi, used to begin the Shabbat. A large number of the phases used in this piyyut, which is largely a pastiche of fragments of various biblical verses, come from these sections. The association is a natural one, the Shabbat being viewed a day for anticipation of redemption, both national and personal: me’eyn olam haba, a “quintessence of the World to Come.” To this, Isaiah’s messianic imagery is uniquely appropriate.

“And with the kingdom of David your servant”

The figure of King David, and the theme of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, are conspicuous by their absence in these chapters (with the exception of one passing reference to “my steadfast love for David” in the Haftarah for Re’eh, at Isa 55:3). Why is the figure of David, who is often thought of as the very symbol of ultimate Jewish glory, sovereignty, and historical vindication, missing from all these chapters, in striking contrast to the continuous presence of the holy city of Jerusalem/Zion?

Shabbat Shoftim is an appropriate occasion for such a discussion, as the Italian rite reads 1 Samuel 8:1-22, “the law of the king,” the chapter completed in 1 Sam 12, the haftarah for Korah, which we discussed at some length at the time. As we mentioned earlier, the Italian rite, or Nusah Roma, suffices with three “haftarot of comfort,” and from this Shabbat on returns to haftarot related to themes in the parasha—in this case, the law of the king in Deut 17:14-20. In any event, the millenarian hopes for the Davidic dynasty form a bold contrast to the anti-monarchic tendency of Samuel articulated in these two chapters.

And indeed (and this, even without the eschatological overtones acquired by the Davidic house in later Jewish thought), how are we to interpret the prophet Samuel’s role in actively seeking out and anointing David (in Chapter 16 of the same book), after speaking here so adamantly against the institution of the monarchy,? Did he change his mind completely about the subject monarchy? Or was his objection from the outset an almost personal vendetta against Saul, whom for various reasons he saw as unsuitable? Incidentally, such an approach cannot be seen as illegitimate; as a person gifted with the holy spirit, nay, with prophetic powers, he must have had some prescient sense of the deep flaws in Saul’s character. But that only accentuates another, far more serious problem in these chapters. A close reading reveals that, whenever speaking in God’s name, Samuel actually articulates “pro-Saul” positions (“have you seen that The Lord ahs chosen him, for there is none like him among all the people” in 10:24, and elsewhere; but as soon as he is expressing his own opinion, he sings a very different tune. It is as if God more or less “forced his hand” to anoint Saul.

To return to Isaiah: the non-mention here of David is particularly interesting in light of Chapter 11, the eschatological prophecy beginning with the “shoot coming from the house of David.” In Chapters 40-66, by contrast, the dominant figures are Zion itself as a mother, gathering her children to herself or, in one case, together with Israel, to a bridegroom and bride (Isa 61:10; Haftarah Nitzavim). In many places, God Himself is portrayed as a king, coming in royal splendor (e.g., 62:3); and in one almost excessively particularly scene He is shown as a warrior king, with clothes drenched in blood (63:1-6; davka the final scene in the entire set of seven haftarot!).


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