Friday, September 08, 2006

Ki Tavo (Haftarot)

“Arise, shine, for your light has come”

The haftarah for this Shabbat, the penultimate one of the seven special haftarot of consolation read after Tisha b’Av, is the 60th Chapter of Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come” (Kumi ori ki va orekh; in the Italian Rite, the reading is Joshua 8:30-9:27, which describes the actual carrying out of the ceremony of blessings and curses at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, commanded in this Torah portion, plus the story of the inhabitants of Gibeon, who utilized a clever ruse to avoid being decimated along with the other Canaanite nations). As this sequence of seven haftarot draws towards its end, the dominant tone is ever more joyous and hopeful. In this case, the dominant motif, struck by the opening verses, is one of light. It reappears at the end: “No longer shall the sun serve as your light by day… for the Lord [Himself] shall be your everlasting light” (v. 19).

The main theme of the central section, beginning with verse 4, is that of Israel being honored by the nations of the world. “Lift up your eyes and see; they all gather to come to you” (v. 4): this included both “your sons and daughters who shall come from afar” and “the multitude of [nations of] the sea and the wealth of nations who come to you.” There follows an extensive list of the various nations who will flock to Zion, each with their characteristic gifts: “camels… gold and frankincense… flocks of Kedar… rams…,” etc. This “flowing” of the nations to Israel and Zion entails two aspects: a) that the nations shall serve you; b) that all nations will recognize God and His Temple in Jerusalem, and will go up there to worship Him. The former is meant in the practical, political sense: other nations will become vassal states of Israel, bringing tribute to her, rather than vice versa, as it was the case at various points in First Temple history. (Many people may admittedly find this vision problematic: wouldn’t it be preferable to see a redemptive future in which there is no subjugation of any nation to another, in any direction?) The second, religious motif appears again in Isaiah 66, read on Shabbat Rosh Hodesh; and is also a central motif in the haftarah for Sukkot, from Zechariah 14.

The central message is that it is not enough that we live in peace and contentment in the Land among ourselves, “every men beneath his vine and fig tree,” but that there must also be a change in how the other nations of the world perceive us. Israel must no longer be a pariah nation, a mockery, a byword for misfortune (as in Deut 28:37; 29:23; Isa 50:6; 53 pass.; Lam. Passim; etc.).

Kavod, “honor” or “respect,” is an important concept in the Torah; its essence is how individuals relate to one another, and how others in the world relates to the nation as a whole. The entire concept-pair of Kiddush Hashem and Hillul Hashem (Sanctification and Profanation of the Divine Name) is predicated on the idea that one must act in such a way as to bring honor to the Divine Name, which is ultimately tied to the public image of the congregation or people of Israel as a whole.

There is no need to dwell on the relevance and poignancy of these words in our present situation, and particularly in light of the events of the past week [this was written just after Sept 11 2001). On occasion, one encounters among certain religious people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, the ideal of the “holy fool.” The argument goes that the overwhelming majority of the world is indifferent to real religious passion, indeed, has contempt for real holiness. Thus, in a paradoxical way, one who is truly doing the Lord’s work will have only indifference, if not contempt, for what the world thinks of him. Such a one may even externally play the role of the “holy fool,” who acts in a seemingly unspiritual fashion. Hasidism delights in stories of holy men who pretend to be utterly simple and ignorant, even coarse, thus concealing their true selves. In any event, such is not the view of this chapter of Isaiah nor, I think, that of the mainstream of the Sages.


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