Thursday, August 03, 2006

Vaethanan (Haftarot)

“May the Redemption Come Quickly. May the Messiah come!”

There is a constant dialectic motion in Judaism between Galut and Ge’ulah, between Exile and Redemption. No sooner have we drunk the depths of bitterness and destruction on Tisha b’Av then the way is set for the opposite swing of the pendulum, towards anticipation of Redemption. Indeed, already in the liturgy and ceremony of Tisha b’Av afternoon there are signs of the easing of intense mourning, of the seeds of redemption. The prayer Nahem, whose contemporary variants and amendations we discussed earlier, means “Comfort.” There is a well-known midrashic idea that the Messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av itself and, according to one version, his name will be “Menahem,” the Comforter (no nod toward the Lubavitcher hysteria intended here). This moment reaches full realization on Shabbat Nahamu, and on the six subsequent Sabbaths, when we read a series of haftarot from the Book of Isaiah that focus upon the motif of comfort and hope.

This dialectic also has a psychological aspect. Hazal say that “Israel can stand neither too much good nor too much catastrophe.” No matter how rotten and evil the behavior of the Jews may have been, there is a psychological necessity after the suffering entailed in a major catastrophe for comforting words and actions—and God, as both a stern and loving father, provides these. Moreover, part of the prophetic hope is that suffering itself may have a softening, humanizing, purifying effect on its victims. If one suffers, if one knows what it is to be down and out—thus goes the line of reasoning—one has more empathy for the indigent and misfortunate. (One of the themes of Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, is the contrast between the luxurious, pampered lives of the “children of Zion,” who walked about wearing rich raiment and eating delicacies, and their present state of destitution). Of course, things do not always work out that way. Human beings, being what they are, often fail to draw these moral lessons. Witness the hardness of some Holocaust survivors, who see all life as one long struggle, and whose life maxim is “Get the other guy before he gets you.” The same holds true for struggles among various minority groups struggling for a place in the sun in a world dominated by others. It was thus among the Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants in New York City in the first decades of the twentieth century and, in a somewhat different way, between Jews and Blacks (sorry, “African- Americans”). In my opinion, this is a central element of the present Mid East conflict; as often noted by Meron Benveniste, both Jews and Arabs were oppressed, in very different ways, by Western European culture.

But it is not accurate to speak of these things in terms of a cycle or pendulum. The Jewish concept of history is essentially linear rather than cyclical. History begins with Creation and Revelation, and moves towards Redemption and fulfillment—albeit this process is periodically sidetracked by human wrongdoing, and the resultant Divine wrath, punishment, destruction and exile. Already in the desert the people built the Sanctuary, allowing the Indwelling of the Divine Presence—but this plan was upset by the sin of the Golden Calf and the withdrawal of the Shekhinah. Later Solomon’s Temple was built in Jerusalem, but “we were exiled because of our sins”; likewise with the Second Temple, heralding a millennia-long era of Exile. Ultimately, however, we believe in the coming of the Messiah—not merely as the high point of a new cycle of sin, exile and redemption, but as bringing a permanent, everlasting age of perfection and grace. In this—thus Jewish theologians take pains to explain—we differ from the concepts of, say, the Far East, of Hinduism or Buddhism, in which there are endless cycles of death and rebirth of the individual, of renewal and destruction of the cosmos.

Another aspect of this crisis in the concept of redemption concerns the situation in the contemporary State of Israel. The fathers of Religious Zionism referred to the State as reshit tzemihat ge’ulatenu, “the first budding of our redemption.” Yet many features of what was thought of as “redemption” have been seen to be no more than a return to the mundane, historical realm. As the excitement of building a new society, with an economy and military and governmental institutions and a revived ancient language and culture, recedes into the past, into the memories of “old-timers,” the unredeemed features of the State somehow seem more prominent. This feeling has been exacerbated this year as a result of the prolonged violent conflict with the Palestinians, coupled with the renewed hostility of the world, and even the reawakening of anti-Semitism, albeit cloaked in the sophisticated, covert guise of humanistic outrage (but very selectively applied; why has no one asked Belgium to try Arafat?). It is as if the hope of secular Zionism that Jews, through Israel, be accepted as equals, as brethren in the family of nations, has turned to ash.

Is there some difficulty in this conception? Are we too worldly-wise to believe in Messiah with all our hearts? As I grow older, I sometimes find that my knowledge of the follies of human history, of Jew and Gentile alike, coupled with the souring of both the Marxist messianism of my parents’ day and the hippie messianism of my own youth, lead me to thoughts of scepticism. Perhaps there will only be more of the “the same old thing,” endlessly repeated? Perhaps the sages of the East, with their somewhat ironic posture of removal from the passions, follies and desires of the masses of mankind, have chosen the truer path of wisdom?

But then the age-old voice saying “even though he tarries, I shall wait for him” reasserts itself. Moreover, to my Jewish eyes, tempered with the admixture of secular messianism and revolutionism with which I was raised, such detached, philosophical passivity seems supercilious, if not downright obscene. We are commanded “to correct the world in the [image of] the Kingdom of Heaven,” to do everything in our power to alter the injustices and wrongs that abound in human society.

Nahamu: “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”

One last general comment before turning to the text of the haftarah. The prophecies read during the seven weeks (and those of the second half of Isaiah, Chs. 40-66, generally) were originally written in a concrete historical context, anticipating the Restoration and Second Commonwealth. In 45:1, Cyrus, the benevolent emperor of Persia and Media, is even referred to by name. But over the course of time these chapters came to be read in a different context, as alluding to the Messianic redemption following the long European Galut.

The haftarah, from Isaiah 40:1-26, opens with the dramatic words: “Comfort you, comfort you my people” (from whence the name, Shabbat Nahamu), and the call to speak tenderly to Jerusalem, telling her that her time of warfare is ended, that she has more than paid for her sins. Two images are predominant here: the straight road carved through the deserts and mountains, upon which the exiles will return to their home (vv. 3-5); and the harbinger standing on a high mountain signaling to them the way (vv. 9-11).

(I hasten to add that the images of the mountains being leveled and the valleys raised up is not meant to be taken literally, but as metaphor. I cannot resist here relating the following amusing but true story. A relative of mine took his mother-in-law, a rather simple woman, to the Dead Sea during her first visit to Israel. As they were going around the seemingly endless series of serpentine turns and descents through the craggy mountains of the Judean Desert, she commented, “Some day all this will be straightened out, no?”)

The balance of the haftarah articulates a Creation-centered theology. “Who has measured the water in the palm of his hands… and weighed the mountains and hills in a balance… entire nations are like a drop in a bucket… He picks up islands like bits of dust” (vv. 12-16). The point of this section is to demonstrate the overwhelming power of God, who is the guarantor of the ultimate redemption of Israel and, by contrast, the folly of the nations, who worship idols they made with their own hands (vv. 18-20). This theme is repeated, with more beautiful poetic imagery, in subsequent chapters of Isaiah (see the haftarot for Bereshit and Lekh Lekha).


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