Thursday, September 14, 2006

Nitzavim (Haftarot)

“I shall surely rejoice in the Lord”

The haftarah for Nitzavim, taken from Isaiah 61:10-63:9, is the final one in the series of seven of consolation, and is also its culmination and apotheosis, so to speak. The tone of high solemnity and celebration is already set in the very first verse: Israel is shown exulting in God, clothed in “garments of salvation… like a bridegoom decked with a garland and a bride adorned in jewels.” We do not know exactly what people wore on their wedding days in Biblical times, but then as now it was surely a most splendid, glorious sight to behold. The motif continues through Chapter 62, where the prophet declares that he will not remain silent until Zion is vindicated, “like the evening star… burning brightly like a torch.” Here too, much like last week’s passage, the theme of the nations seeing her honor is central. Then, returning to the wedding metaphor, Israel and its land will receive new names, symbolizing her redeemed status: no longer “Abandoned and “Desolate,” but Heftzi -bah (“My delight is in her”) and Be’ula (“Married”). Zion’s sons, and God Himself, will rejoice in Zion as at the wedding of youth and a virgin.

The section towards the end of the haftarah, from 63:1-6, presents a rather strange scene in which God himself is shown “coming from Edom… and Bozrah,” striding in strength and pride, his clothes soaked a bright red with the blood of the defeated enemies. “I have trodden the wine press alone, and no on was with me from the peoples; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath…”—the tangible signs of His “day of vengeance” against the nations.

(The Italian Jews read Joshua 24:1-18, the solemn gathering of covenant renewal in which Joshua gathers the people at Shechem prior to his death, analogous to Moses’ farewell address in the Torah portion.)

“Sefat Emet on Renewal

The Sefat Emet, in the very first teaching on last week’s portion (Ki Tavo 5631, s.v. Midrash Tanhuma), speaks of the centrality of creativity and renewal. He notes the imperative, “let them be new in your eyes every day,” as applying not only to words of Torah, but to all things. The sense conveyed is that the essential religious service consists in constant personal renewal: in the awareness that life is not mere repetition, but that there are powers of renewal, of freshness, of creativity in each one of us, available to us if we but open our eyes to see them. His interesting move is in his relating this essentially psychological issue to basic religious issues: the possibility of human renewal and creativity corresponds to the belief in the living presence of Divine power (koah elohi) in universe, to God’s constant animation and renewal of the Creation, whereas the jaded, cynical approach, which sees everything as “more of the same old stuff,” is rooted in a naturalistic view (teva), which at most believes in the Deist’s “clockmaker God.”

To this I would add: this is particularly the message of Rosh Hashana, as the day of renewal of the life force of the universe, and or own renewal/revitalization/turning, which is the essence of teshuva. This type of renewal is one which becomes more difficult with the years, as one progresses through middle life and sees old age on the no-longer-so-distant horizon (friends and siblings becoming grandparents, retiring, etc.). At such moments, one may find inspiration in the verse (from the Psalm for Shabbat! 92:15), “they shall yet bring forth fruit in old age” (od yenuvun beseivah).


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