Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Matot-Masei (Haftarot)

“You have abandoned the source of living waters… to dig broken wells”

The haftarah for Matot-Mas’ei (or Mas’ei, when read by itself) is a direct continuation of that for the three weeks: namely, Jeremiah 2:4-28, concluded on a positive note with the addition of ether 3:4 (Ashkenazim) or 4:1-2 (Sephardim). But unlike the first of these three haftarot, discussed here under the rubric of Pinhas, this one minces no words in its unsparing and unrelenting criticism.

The chapter centers upon one central theme: the people’s abandonment of and unfaithfulness to its God, conceived of in almost personal terms. It begins with a series of rhetorical questions asked by God Himself: what good did they find in the other gods, who are nothing, compared to Myself? Have they already forgotten all the good things I have done for them—the Exodus, the bringing them to a rich land (eretz hakarmel), etc. Furthermore, even the pagan nations have never abandoned their gods, false and useless though they may be—yet you, my people, have done so (vv. 10-11)!

From 2:9 on the style is that of a “quarrel” or “dispute” of God with the people (compare Micah 6:2, “Hear, O mountains, the dispute of the Lord”; Haftarat Balak). The leadership—the priests, those who “handle” the Torah, even the prophets—are taken to task for neither knowing the Lord nor teaching the people to seek Him. But more than moral iniquity, the people’s abandoning of God is viewed as simple foolishness: “Two evils my people have done: forsaking the source of living waters, and digging broken cisterns that can hold no water” (v. 13).

Related to this is another motif, which we have already seen elsewhere (e.g., in Haftarat Bamidbar, Hosea 1-2): comparison of the unfaithful people to an adulterous woman (“under every leafy tree you play the whore”; 2:20) or, worse, a wild ass in heat, whom “all those who seek her will find her” (v. 24). That is, Israel’s unfaithfulness is not even a matter of exchanging faithfulness to the Lord for loyalty to a new lover-god, but one of total promiscuity! There is a deep note of disappointment on God’s part: how have you changed so?!

At a certain point the imagery changes from that of a relationship between lovers to that of parent and child: “You call the tree ‘father,’ and the stone ‘she who bore me’” (2:27), tinged with sarcasm: ”Where now is the god you have made; let him save him if he can” (v. 28).

But, as is always the way with haftarot, the fathers of the Tradition cannot abide unrelieved pessimism, and skip a dozen or so verses to end on a more positive note, of restoration of the relationship: “You shall yet call me father, the friend of my youth” (3:4).

One can imagine a sophisticated comic, the likes of a Woody Allen, reading this chapter as a parody, as an exaggerated burlesque, nay, as the great-grandfather of that bugaboo of modern Jewish intellectuals: Jewish parental guilt. The much-maligned Jewish mother, invoking all she ahs done for her progeny, can be seen as a pale reflection of the ancient God of the Patriarchs, who harangues and his children with arguments from guilt. The only way to answer to such innuendoes is in the unmodern contention that guilt is, in fact, a good thing. It is only a bowdlerized and misunderstood Freudianism that sees guilt as a negative force. All civilization must of necessity be constructed upon a modicum of guilt: that is, the inner awareness or feeling of wrong-doing, specifically, of having let down some authority figure to whom one owes a moral debt—be that figure ones parents or ones Heavenly parent. Only that rare individual who has reached the sublime moral and spiritual level of constantly seeking goodness and truth “because it true” (to quote Maimonides’ words in Teshuva 10.2) may perhaps transcend this need for guilt. For those 99.9% of us who are at least much of the time motivated by self-interest (including the self-appointed, high-minded guardians of political correctness and secular humanism), such unpleasant emotions as guilt are still much needed to keep us in line. This need is only exacerbated by the “refreshing lack of certainty about virtually everything” characteristic of the fashionable post-modernism (Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man, p. 375).

A Note on Custom

The Yemenite practice for the three weeks differs somewhat from that of the other communities: they read Jeremiah 1 on the first of these three sabbaths; the other two weeks they read Isaiah 1 (read by others on Shabbat Hazon, the last and most melancholy of these three sabbaths), divided in two, 1:12-20 and 1:21-31. Perhaps this is based, on the one hand, on the original Talmudic concept that this haftarah (or more particularly, the verse Isa 1:14) is to be read when Rosh Hodesh Av falls on the Sabbath (as it does this year): i.e., on the middle one of these three sabbaths. On the other hand, the latter haftarah, read on the sabbath before Tisha b’Av, begins with the word Eikha, the keyword that appears in the Torah reading (in Deut 1:12), in the prophetic reading of the Sabbath before Tisha b’Av, and as the opening word of three of the five chapters of the scroll read on the fast itself. (I once read of certain communities that, on this sabbath, read/study either the Book of Lamentations or midrashim connected with it—but I don’t remember the details.)

The Italians, as mentioned, have an alternative custom, reading haftarot related to the contents of the parshah itself: for Matot, Joshua 13:15-33, describing the boundaries of the lands allotted to the two-and-a-half Transjordanian tribes; for Mas’ei (or Matot-Mas’ei), Joshua 19:51–21:3, alluding to the completion of the actual division of the land among the tribes, and the allotment of cities of refuge within Eretz Yisrael proper.

One should also mention that, although Matot-Mas’ei coincides this year (this was written in 2001) with Rosh Hodesh, one does not read the customary haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh (i.e., Isaiah 66; see on this, in brief, HY II: Mishpatim). Indeed, this haftarah is not read at all during this calendar year—quite an unusual occurrence. The rule is that, contrary to the case of ordinary haftarot during the course of the year, the special haftarot for the “three weeks of catastrophe” override Rosh Hodesh—a further indication of the centrality of what I referred to last week as “the Great Jewish Theme”: the drama of Exile and Redemption. (When Rosh Hodesh Elul falls on Shabbat, a similar question arises regarding the third of the seven haftarot of consolation, but then another solution is available: the haftarah for Rosh Hodesh [or Mahar Hodesh, as this year] is read, while the haftarah for the seven weeks, Isa 54:11-55:5, is read later on, combined with that for Ki Tetse, 54:1-10, which immediately precedes it in its source, as one long haftarah.)


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