Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Haazinu-Shuvah (Haftarot)

“Return O Israel”

The haftarah read on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as Shabbat Shuva or Shabbat Teshuva, is a composite of several passages relating in various ways to the theme of repentance. It is one of the few haftarot in the annual cycle composed of passages from several different prophetic works—Hosea, Joel, and Micah—as these are in fact part of the collection known as Trei Asar (“The Twelve Minor Prophets”), which is considered by the halakha as one single, composite book.

There are a variety of customs as to the precise passages that constitute this haftarah. The classical Ashkenazic custom is to read Hosea 14:2-10 followed by Joel 2: 11-27; the Sephardic minhag is to read the selfsame passage from Hosea, but followed by Micah 7:18-20. Many Ashkenazim read all three passages: the older custom was to read these in the sequence Hosea, Micah, Joel; the Soncino Humash, which has been influential in our generation, and other modern books have them in the order, Hosea, Joel, Micah. Finally, there are those who follow the medieval Ashkenazic practice, reflected in the Tosafot on Megillah 31b, to read on this Sabbath the haftarah for Fast Days: “Seek the Lord where He is to be found” (Isaiah 55:6-56:8; interestingly, G. Plaut’s Reform “Modern Torah Commentary” uses this minhag, no doubt reflecting the “echt Yekke” origins of that movement).

The passage from Hosea opens with the dramatic call, “Return, O Israel (Shuvah Yisrael) unto the Lord your God,” from which this Shabbat takes its name. The closing phrase here, “unto the Lord your God,” is taken by the midrashic authors to indicate the great power of repentance, through which a person can ascend all the way to God Himself—“to the Throne of Glory.” A Hasidic obiter dictum reads this as saying that the essence of man’s repentance is to return “until you make the Lord your God.”

The mood of this passage is strikingly different from the haftarot preceding Tisha b’Av (see HY II: Pinhas, Matot-Masei, Devarim), filled with harsh admonitions and detailed, vivid depictions of the people’s sinfulness and corruption and the punishment they may expect as a result. Here the message here is pristine and simple: “Return… for you have stumbled in your sin” (suggesting that the quintessence of repentance is simple consciousness of failure). The most plausible reading for the difficult verse 3 might be: “Take with you [the following] words when you return to the Lord: ‘Forgive all guilt [kol tisa avon being read as if to mean tisa kol avon]; accept what is good; and let our words [of contrition] be instead of [sacrificial] bullocks” (after NJPS). In any event, the general message is clear enough: the basic act of contrition, of words of confession and regret, and the resolve to do good in the future, suffice to restore oneself in God’s eyes. Verse 4 likewise portrays another essential element of teshuva: abandoning reliance upon outside forces for salvation (“Assyria will not save us”) and ceasing to acknowledge idols, knowing that God alone is He who “will have compassion on the orphan.” Verses 5-9 describe the Divine acts of healing, of acceptance and comfort, of freely repentant Israel, and causing them to blossom and flower.

The passage from Joel 2:11-27 describes an actual visitation of disaster upon the people and, in its wake, acts of public repentance: gathering the people together by the shofar for prayer and fasting. This passage is in fact one of biblical sources for the concept of public fast days, as times of prayer and repentance. The message is: “The Day of the Lord is coming; it will be great and awesome and difficult to bear. (This dues not refer to an eschatological apocalypse, but to a harsh juncture within history: possibly an invasion by foreign armies or, in this case, a plague of locusts, destroying the crops and sowing famine.) In any event, the solution lies in turning to God (again, with ones heart rather than through ostentatious external gestures); returning to Him, in the knowledge that He is compassionate and may repent of the planned catastrophe and bring blessing instead. Verses 15-17 describe the fast and public assembly involving all: young and old, even newlyweds. The concluding section (vv. 18-27), similar to the parallel passage in Hosea, describes the Divine blessing: the restoration of abundant grain, oil and wine; the expulsion of the threat and the making good of the destruction they had wrought by abundant goodness; concluding with the words, ”you shall never more be ashamed.”

The third passage, found in some customs, consists of the three concluding verses of Micah: verses of unmitigated Divine mercy. “What God is like unto You, who removes iniquity and transgression… He does not harbor His anger forever, for He desires mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and throw all our sins into the sea…” This same group of verses is used to complement the Book of Jonah, read as Haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon, and also figures prominently in the water-related Tashlikh liturgy for Rosh Hashana.

The most significant common denominator of all these passages is that, rather than castigation and moralistic scolding, they are imbued with a message of compassion and Divine mercy. This attribute is increasingly emphasized as we move from the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashana to the Day of Mercy on Yom Kippur (see on this HY I: Rosh Hashana).

David’s Hymn of Victory

On those years when Parshat Haazinu falls between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the haftarah is King David’s Song of Victory, 2 Samuel 22, the same as that read every year on the Seventh Day of Pesah. Question; does this haftarah have a different resonance simply as a result of being used in a different context? That is: the reading for the Seventh Day of Pesah, the Song of the Sea, is a song of joy at God’s miracle of splitting the Sea and saving the Israelites; as such, it seems suitably complemented by David’s song of victory. Does Moses’ Song in Deuteronomy 32, known as Haazinu, which is really a moral admonition and a poetic anticipation of rather dire future events, strike the same emotional chord? To state things thus is to fairly beg the question.

The haftarah, then, is King David’s Song of Victory, “on the day that God saved him from the hands of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul” (2 Samuel 22; this song also appears, with only minor variations, as Psalm 18). There are only two such songs in all of the books of the Prophets; the other, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), serves as haftarah for Beshalah, when the same chapter is read from the Torah in the course of the regular annual cycle. This chapter is read as haftarah for Shabbat Ha’azinu (when it does not coincide with Shabbat Shuvah) when the second major poem in the Torah, the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), is read.

The Song may be seen as a kind of summing up of David’s life, at least in terms of its military aspect. The mention in the heading, “from the hand of all of his enemies and from… Saul,” is a bit strange. Immediately after Saul’s death, David eulogized him, keening for both him and his son Jonathan in what is certainly the most famous elegiac poem in the Bible (2 Sam 1:17-27; if I had my druthers, this chapter would have been included in the haftarah cycle). But at this point, looking back in retrospect at his entire life, he seems to have again thought of Saul primarily as a threatening and dangerous figure in his life. (On the other hand, conspicuous by its absence is any reference to the hard time given him by his sons, notably Absalom and Adonijah. Perhaps the most awkward incidents in David’s life related to the palace revolutions of these sons, impatient for the throne. Could that be the reason for their omission here: that their memory was just too painful? But see also my comments in HY II on the haftarot for Hayyei Sarah and Vayehi.)

Unlike the prophecies proper, read for their ideas, theology and moral passion, or the narrative sections of the Prophets, where our focus is on the events or the personalities of the figures involved, this song is best read as poetry, in terms of its poetics, imagery, language, etc. The ideas expressed are fairly straightforward and already familiar to us from many of the hymns of personal prayer and thanksgiving of the Psalter. The song begins with the author expressing trust and confidence in God as his rock and fortress (vv. 2-4), coupled with a description of the dire straits in which he found himself, using imagery of water: “waves of death… torrents of damnation” (vv. 5-7). These are followed by descriptions of Gods’ power and His mysteriousness, shown through images of natural upheaval, fire, and darkness (vv. 8-16): “He mounted a cherub and flew… darkness around him… thick clouds, huge thunderheads.” The central section describes how he succeeded in overcoming his enemies, thanks to God’s constant help, granted him “because He has delighted in me” (v. 20). This is described as the result of Divine favor, resulting from his own righteousness and his constant awareness of God’s ways, i.e., His laws and statutes (vv. 26-28). The poet then turns to general praise of “the God whose ways are perfect… Who is God except the Lord?” (vv. 31ff.). And again, detailing how God helped him in battle: “training my hands for battle… setting my feet firm… making my enemies turn tail to me… grinding them down like dust of the earth, crushing them like mire in the streets”; as well as refusing to answer their prayers, but rather helping along their downfall (vv. 34-46). And finally, the peroration: “The Lord lives, blessed is my rock!…. The God who has given me vengeance…. Therefore I shall sing your praises among the nations…. He is a tower of salvation to his king, and performs kindness to his anointed one, to David and his seed forever” (vv. 47-51).

One cannot write about this hymn without mentioning the final verse, familiar to observant Jews because of its use in the Grace After Meals and the textual variations (Magdil / Migdol Yeshuot Malko) that are part of the Sabbath/weekday rhythm of Jewish life. Whether this custom is based on a careless misunderstanding of an abbreviation or a deeper reason is subject to debate. Some scholars claim that the use of the term Migdol rather than Magdil on Shabbat is based on a gloss in an old manuscript, where next to the word Magdil it read bsh”b Migdol. This was meant to be read as “be-Shmuel Bet (“in Second Samuel,” i.e., as opposed to the reading in Psalm 18), but was mistakenly interpreted as be-shabbat (“on the Sabbath [one says]…”). An alternative, homiletical explanation is that the verb Magdil, “He makes great,” is suitable to the weekdays, with their active, dynamic character, while the noun Migdol, “a tower,” suggesting stability, completion, stasis, is more appropriate to the contemplative, passive mood of the Shabbat (thus, inter alia, Rav Adin Steinsaltz in his “Bentcher”). Whether the custom is erroneous or such was the original intention, it has become rooted in Jewish practice, providing “equal time” to two equally valid and coherent readings (thus Baer in Siddur Avodat Yisrael, pp. 561-562).


Post a Comment

<< Home