The Hebrew Scriptures are not readily or easily understood by native English speakers, we post a weekly addition to regular Torah commentary. "Cutting to the Root" is intended to promote an understanding of the complexity of the Hebrew language and thereby gain a richer and deeper understanding of the Scriptures. It is our goal that these notes will teach tolerance and understanding.Please visit our web site at

Friday, November 7, 2008

Parashat Lechlecha - the haftara

Parashat Lech Lechah – the Haftara
Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16
Reading date 8th November 2008 – 10th Cheshvan 5769

Our highlighted Haftara Text
“But You, Israel, my servant,Jacob, whom I have chosen,Seed of Abraham My friendYou whom I drew from the ends of the earthAnd called from its far cornersTo whom I said: You are My servantI chose you, I have not rejected you--Fear not, for I am with you,Be not frightened, for I am your God;I strengthen you and I help you,I uphold you with My victorious right hand”.Isaiah 41:8-10

“It is not so much that The Children of Israel are the Chosen people, but that we are the Choosing people”.

Ten generations after Noah, Abram (his name is changed later in the Parasha to Abraham) hears a call from YHVH: Lech Lechah - Go Forth. Abram together with his wife Sarai, are to leave their "home and native land" and go on a physical and spiritual journey. YHVH makes a covenant with Abraham and blesses him. Abraham will become the father of a great nation (with descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky) and the land of Israel will be given to his offspring. In return, Abraham is to follow YHVH's ways (the details are not specified). Our highlighted verse refers to the Children of Israel as 'seed of Abraham.' Like Abraham was brought from the 'ends of the earth,' The Children of Israel in exile should not fear but have trust that YHVH, the Creator of heaven and earth, would redeem them. By reminding them of YHVH's promise to Abraham, Isaiah is reassuring the Israelites that there is hope.

This is the third (and for a while at least, the last) Haftara taken from the book of Isaiah. There are a total of 14 Haftarot taken from Isaiah, more than any other book from the Prophets. 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 the Nation of Israel who had been captured and exiled.

The verse in the Haftara makes YHVH's election of Israel explicit: "You are my servant, I chose you, I have not rejected you" (Isaiah 41:9b). The Children of Israel, descendants of Abraham, are described as 'chosen,' just like Abraham is called by YHVH. Why did YHVH choose Abraham? A well known Midrash comes to answer that question and describes the world's first 'iconoclast' (literally: a breaker or destroyer of images), smashing the idols in his father's idol shop. (Contrary to popular belief, this story is not in the Torah!) The verse before, however, alludes to the makers of idols, who busy themselves with their crafts, oblivious to the fact that the whole earth trembles before YHVH:"The woodworker encourages the smith; He who flattens with the hammer [encourages] him who pounds the anvil. He says of the riveting, 'It is good!' and he fixes it with nails that it may not topple" (Isa. 41:7). Perhaps this portion was chosen because of its allusion to idol makers.

The rabbinic imagination (Genesis Rabbah 38:18) portrays Abraham as the world's first monotheist to discover YHVH. Upon closer examination, this doesn't seem to be entirely true. After all, we see Adam talking to YHVH, Cain and Abel making sacrifices to YHVH, and after the birth of Adam's (lesser known) third son, Seth, the Torah tells us, "... It was then that people began to invoke YHVH by name" (Gen. 4:26). YHVH chooses Noah, too, and even makes a covenant through him with all humanity.

What made Abraham special? Did YVH choose him, or was it Abraham who (first) chose YHVH? Did Abraham have some intrinsic spiritual quality? The biblical scholar Speiser has proposed that Abraham was a religious 'genius' just like the scientific genius of a Galileo, or a Newton or a literary genius like Shakespeare. Others suggest that true monotheism didn't emerge until Moses (or even the later prophets). But it was not only Abraham who was chosen. Biblical and rabbinic texts make it clear that the Children of Israel were also chosen by YHVH.
The Torah describes the Children of Israel's relationship with YHVH: "Now, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, then you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex. 19:5-6)

Note that being YHVH's treasured possession is conditional: "If we obey YHVH... then we shall be YHVH's treasured people." Why did YHVH choose the Children of Israel? YHVH alone only knows. Some rabbinic texts suggest that the Children of Israel were not even that willing to be YHVH's chosen people. The Midrash (Mechilta Yitro 5) describes YHVH going to other nations with the Torah, and after being rejected, holding Mt. Sinai over the Children of Israel's heads saying, "Will you accept My Torah? (If not, I drop the mountain.)" Only then, with the proverbial 'gun (well in this case- mountain) to their heads' did the Children of Israel all of a sudden think it was a good idea to accept the Torah saying 'Na'aseh v'nishma- we will do and we will hear.'

This Midrash makes it clear that it was YHVH doing the choosing. The Siddur includes several passages such as the traditional blessing before the Torah that still retains this language: ‘asher bakhar banu mi kol ha’amim’, "who has chosen us from among all peoples."
It is understandable that in today's egalitarian and democratic society, the concept of ‘choseness’ is problematic. The Italian humanist commentator Sforno seems to share our modern discomfort, commenting on the Exodus verse above: Although the entire human race is more precious to Me than all other existing creatures, for humanity alone among them represents My intention, as our Sages say, "Precious is humanity who was created in the [divine] image (Pirkei Avot 3:14), still you shall be to Me a treasure beyond all of them.

The Bible certainly supports Sforno's thesis that YHVH cares about all humanity. (YHVH even calls Egypt "My people," and Assyria "My inheritance." Isa.19:25-26). Some of the Children of Israel are embarrassed with this delineation of 'us' and 'them,' of Jew and gentile. It is hard to speak of 'chosess' and avoid chauvinism or feelings of superiority. Historically, in times of persecution, it is understandable that these verses may have been a source of hope and reassurance. However, they may have also been the foundation for religious conceit and false superiority (and subsequent hatred and persecution of the Children of Israel- creating a vicious circle). No wonder they are today viewed with suspicion. In an age of tolerance and equality there seems little room for this doctrine.Chosen doesn't mean 'superior' and the Children of Israel are not like the 'teacher's pet' who get preferential treatment-- quite the contrary. Because YHVH is just, the prophet Amos warns, "Only You have I known of all the families of the earth. Therefore I will punish you for your sins" (3:2). The Children of Israel are obligated to a life of unique responsibility to YHVH. We are to be a 'light to the nations.' The Children of Israel are called a Kingdom of Priests because they introduced the world to our concept of YHVH. As Israel Zangwill was the first to phrase it, maybe it is not so much that Jews are the Chosen people, but that we are the Choosing people. Rabbi Meir Simcha Kagan of Dvinsk teaches that Israel is called YHVH's first born. Every child is treasured by a parent, just as every child is unique. However, it is only the first born who defines the adults as parents for the first time. YHVH loves the Children of Israel and all humanity, just as a parent loves [all] their children. On one level, all humanity is one, yet we should also recognize the uniqueness of every individual and the distinctiveness of every group. It is like comparing animals. Some can swim, some can fly, some even have sonar. Is it chauvinistic to say that bats and dolphins are unique to use echolocation? No animal is 'better' than another. Similarly, every people has made a unique contribution to society, and the Children of Israel no less so. Each group has their own culture and should rejoice in their people's accomplishment. The Children of Israel should therefore be proud of their contribution: to remind the world that there is but YHVH, and that we should do good buy being obedient to Him.

Shabbat Shalom

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