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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Parashat Vayera - the Haftara

Parashat Vayera – the Haftara
2 Kings 4:1 – 37
Reading date: 15th November 2008 – 17th Cheshvan 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text.
“Elisha went into the house, and there was the dead boy lying on his bed. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to Adonai. Then he stretched himself over the boy, placing his mouth eyes and hands on the boy's mouth, hands and eyes. He crouched over him and the boy's body grew warm. Elisha got up, walked to and fro about the house and again crouched over the boy. The boy then sneezed seven times and opened his eyes”.II Kings 4: 32-35

“Every morning how grateful we should be to awaken to a new day”.

This week's Haftara features the prophet Elisha, a disciple of the better-known prophet Elijah. Elisha, too, was famous for performing miracles, and the Haftara tells of two such miracles. In the first, a jar of oil miraculously fills all the jars of the house- (a tale that might be more appropriate for Chanukah!) The second narrative of a Shunamite woman, however, connects the Haftara to our Torah portion. This Shunamite acts like Abraham in graciously providing hospitality to her guest. Like Sarah, she has no son, and expresses disbelief when she is told the news. The phrase 'k'et hayah' (II Kings 4:16) echoes the language in Genesis (18:14). Her young boy collapses -- the biblical text indicates that he has died- and is miraculously revived. (Scholars suggest it was possibly sunstroke.) The account parallels the near death experience of Isaac, who (according to some Midrashim- see below) actually died, and was resurrected.

This week's Haftara is taken from the book of II Kings (from the section called the 'Early Prophets' or Historical prophets as opposed to the later 'literary' prophets like Isaiah and Amos). The book of Kings was divided in two by the early Greek translation (the Septuagint). The book of I Kings deals with the monarchy of David and his son Solomon, and II Kings continues with the history of Israel after the kingdom was split into two. Elisha prophesied in the Northern Kingdom around 850-800 BCE, during the reign of Jehoram, son of Ahab.

This week's Torah portion concludes with the climactic 'Akedat Yitzhak - the Binding of Isaac' (also read on Rosh Hashanah). Immediately after, Isaac disappears from the narrative. While Abraham and Isaac went up the mountain, the text reads: "And Abraham returned (in the singular) to the men..." (Gen. 22:19). Where was Isaac? Various Midrashim suggest different solutions: he was sent home early (at night) to avoid the evil eye. Rashi quotes the Midrash that he went to study at the academy of ‘Shem’ and ‘Ever’. Even more fanciful is the suggestion (in Midrash Hagadol) that "The Holy Blessed One brought Isaac to the Garden of Eden for three years" (one wonders, perhaps to recuperate from the psychological trauma). According to several Midrashim, Isaac sustained at least an incision that had to be healed.

There is no limit to the creative Midrashic mind, and there exists a surprising tradition that when Abraham's knife touched Isaac's neck, Isaac's soul left him. We need how ever to remain focused on the truth and simplicity of the Torah.

The Rabbis match each of the first three paragraphs of the ‘Amidah’, the central standing prayer, to the three patriarchs. The first paragraph ‘Avot’ is associated with the first of our ancestors, Abraham, and concludes with 'Shield of Abraham.' The third, the ‘Kedushah’, concludes with 'the Holy YHVH' and is connected to Jacob who came upon the 'gateway to heaven' when he lay down and dreamt of the staircase with angels ascending and descending. The second paragraph, ‘Gevurot’, which concludes with 'who revives the dead' would then match the remaining, second patriarch, and the Rabbis suggest that Isaac recited this benediction when he was revived.

Although the 'pshat' or plain meaning of the biblical text is emphatically clear that Abraham did not go through with this near sacrifice (after all, the whole point of the story), one Midrash pushes the limits of rabbinic imagination and turns the story on its head:
When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes (!) and his sacrificial dust was cast on to Mount Moriah, the Holy Blessed One immediately brought upon him dew and revived him...Forthwith the ministering angels began to recite: 'Blessed are You Adonai, who revives the dead.' [Shibbole Haleket quoted in The Last Trial, by Shalom Spiegel, pg. 33].
The idea that Isaac was actually sacrificed is shocking, and the exegete Ibn Ezra, obviously familiar with this tradition, forcefully disagrees and comments, "But he who asserts that Abraham slew Isaac and abandoned him and that afterwards Isaac came to life again is speaking contrary to Word." But during the Crusades, where entire Jewish communities were slaughtered, they saw themselves martyred as Isaac [almost] was in the Akedah, except this time, without the miracle of being delivered at the last second. Medieval poems that memorialized these tragedies often compared the victims to Isaac on the altar.When Christianity emerged with its central doctrine around crucifixion, resurrection, and the atoning power of Yeshua’s blood however, the Jewish parallel that Isaac too was actually slaughtered, atoned for our sins and was resurrected was almost purged from Jewish sources. While the concept of bodily resurrection was debated by the Sadducees and Pharisees, it was accepted as a tenet in Judaism, and is included in Maimonides' thirteen principles. It can be found in the concluding hymn of 'Yigdal.' Today many Jews still believe in bodily resurrection of the dead. As many people, both Jew and Gentile distance themselves from the idea of resurrection, perhaps we should not distance ourselves from this idea of resurrection so quickly. ‘Modeh Ani’, the first prayer recited in the morning upon awakening (and therefore usually not included in synagogue liturgy) describes YHVH as returning our souls- as if we were dead and have been revived. Each morning we are "born again." Although the ‘born again’ concept is largely a Christian idea, one who returns to faith within Judaism is called a ‘baal teshuvah’ – one who has come to repentance and has returned to Torah and the ways of YHVH. But when we recite the ‘Modeh Ani’ prayer, or the second paragraph of the ‘Amidah’, we should remember how grateful we should be to YHVH that He has awakened us to a new day.

Shabbat Shalom

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