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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Parashat Breishit - the Haftara

Parashat Breishit – The Haftara
Isaiah 42:5 – 32:10
Reading date: 25th October 2008 – 26th Tishrei 5769

Unlike the weekly Torah portion, the Haftara is generally shorter (1-2 chapters long) taken from the Prophets, the second section of the Bible. This section (Nevi'im) includes both the historical books (sometimes referred to as the Early Prophets) Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, as well as the more famous 'literary prophets' Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There are also twelve 'minor' prophets (minor here does not refer to their importance, but rather the quantity of their preserved writings- usually only a few chapters. The minor prophets were all written on one scroll). Some suggest that the institution of the reading from the prophets comes from the dark ages when the public reading of the Torah was prohibited. Others propose that it was introduced to challenge the Samaritans who claimed that only the Torah was divine, but not the other books. (Surprisingly, the oldest reference is not in Jewish sources, but in the book of Acts, when it is related that Paul spoke to the congregation "after the reading from the Torah and the Prophets").

Our Highlighted Haftara text
“Long enough have I held my peace;I have kept still and held myself back;now, I cry out like a woman in labor;I pant and I gasp”.Isaiah 42:14

“What kind of relationship do we want to have with YHVH in the coming year”?
Each week, in addition to the Torah portion, we will be looking at the Haftara portions, and seeing what connections and insight we can find.

This week we begin the Torah cycle again starting with Gen. 1:1, and the Torah opens with the description of the creation of the cosmos and of humanity. The Haftara taken from Isaiah, (42:5-43:11) begins: "Thus says the Eternal YHVH, the One who created heavens and stretched them out, who made the earth and all that grows in it, who gives breath to its people and spiritual to all who walk on it." The connection is clear. In both passages, YHVH is the Creator of heaven and earth. YHVH is further described as the creator and maker of Israel (43:1). The Haftara also uses images of light and darkness to describe liberation from exile.

Our highlighted verse describes YHVH as a woman in labor. K.I.Parr suggests that the prophet transforms the image of the exaggerated breaths of a birthing mother (think Lamaze) into the forceful breath of YHVH that 'hovers over the water' and that is breathed into humans.
Scholars identify this 'deutero-Isaiah' (from chapters 40 on) as a different author from the Isaiah ben Amotz identified in Isaiah 1:1. The 'Second Isaiah' preached in Babylonia in the sixth century BCE and brought a message of consolation to Israelites who had been captured and exiled.

In the ancient world, since women gave birth, the female element was often associated with creation. (The waters of creation can be imagined as the world's amniotic fluid.) However, in our Parasha YHVH is not described as a birthing mother. The Haftara, describing YHVH's special, covenantal relationship to Israel, pictures YHVH as ready to battle Israel's enemies. But juxtaposed to verse 13, "The Eternal goes out like a warrior..." Isaiah uses a surprising image. YHVH is described as a woman in labor! This use of female imagery is quite distinctive to Isaiah. Women were (and, in some settings, still) excluded from full participation in religious cultic life. Mayer Gruber suggests that this and the typically prophetic description of YHVH as husband and Israel as wife may have contributed to women's feeling of marginalization and their attraction to cults where femaleness existed as a positive and Divine value. He writes, "Perhaps, as a result of this realization, our prophet deliberately made use of both masculine and feminine similes for YHVH."

With the tunes and liturgy of the High Holy Days still reverberating in our ears, YHVH is pictured as father and king: ‘Avinu, Malkeinu’. Various attempts have been made to make this image less male, though I don't find Our Mother, Our Queen a particularly effective solution. Some ‘mahzorim’ (prayerbooks) leave the Hebrew ‘Avinu, Malkeinu’ un-translated and simply written in English letters.

But the High Holy Day liturgy is full of metaphors besides father and king. One of my favorite passages that is sung quite joyously is: ‘Ki Anu Amecha v'ata Malkeinu’.
For we are Your People and You are our God; We are Your children and You are our Father. We are Your servants, and You are our Sovereign.

Even with gender neutral translation, the images remain all pretty hierarchical. The prayer continues with language that would have resonated for the ancient Israelite farmer: For we are your sheep and You are our Shepherd, we are Your vineyard and You are our keeper, we are Your treasure and You are our kin. These images of YHVH as shepherd and vineyard keeper feel closer and warmer, even though we are still passive.

Shabbat Shalom.

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