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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Parashat Shemot - the Haftara

Parashat Shemot – the Haftara
Isaiah 27:6 – 28: 29:23 - 23
Reading date: 17th January 2009 – 21st Tevet 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
“Therefore teach them: one command and then another, one line and then another, a little here, a little there! So the prophet must talk to this crowd with slow speech and simple words, and say to them: Here is rest; rest for the weary; repose is here. [Still] they refuse to listen. To them the word of the Eternal will come: one command and then another, one line and then another, a little here, a little there!”Isaiah 28: 10-13

It is easy to come up with reasons so we need to distinguish between legitimate obstacles and lame excuses.

We begin the book of Exodus and the familiar story of the enslavement of the Israelites and the birth of Moses. The Ashkenazi haftara is taken from the prophet Isaiah; the Sephardic rite chooses a passage from Jeremiah (1:1-2:3). Like Moses, many prophets were reluctant to deliver YHVH's message. YHVH's reply to Jeremiah's protest, "I don't know how to speak", (cf. Ex. 4:10) is similar to the reply given to Moses: "Go wherever I send you and speak whatever I command you... I put My words into your mouth" (Jer. 1:7, 9; compare to Ex. 4:12).

We find a number of word echoes between the Isaiah portion and Parashat Shemot: the first word of the haftara echoes the Israelites who 'come' down to Egypt ‘haba'im’, and the description that they 'fill' the world like they filled Egypt. The obscure phrase in verse 7 "Was he beaten as his beater has been" uses the Hebrew word ‘makah’ used to describe the Egyptian who was beating the Israelite.

Isaiah is the most popular of the prophets for the Haftara: fourteen of the weekly portions (in the Ashkenazi calendar) are from Isaiah. Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah in the latter half of the 8th century B.C.E. The northern kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim) comprised of the ten tribes (Judah and Benjamin formed the southern kingdom) was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E. While Isaiah hoped that the northern kingdom would be restored (regrettably, the ten tribes vanished permanently), his prophecy was also a warning that to the leaders and population of Judah. 'You could be next' if you don't change your behavior. Indeed, a hundred years later, Judah was conquered, but this time, a remnant did survive, and returned to Israel and re-established a new nation.

Unlike Jeremiah, Isaiah was not a reluctant prophet. After the graphic description of the northern kingdom as gluttons and drunkards, Isaiah in a beautifully alliterative passage suggests that we have to be spoken to like little children: ‘tzav l'tzav, tzav l'tzav, kav l'kav, kav l'kav’: one command here one command there, one line here, one line there (28:10). According to the prophet, he must talk to this crowd with 'slow speech and simple words.' This, like the Jeremiah connection, echoes Moses' complaint that he is 'slow of speech and heavy of tongue' (Ex. 4:10). It is not clear what the nature of the handicap was and different commentators disagree on the meaning of this phrase. Although Rashi suggests that Moses stuttered, many commentators had different views. According to Rashbam, Rashi's grandson: I am not fluent in the Egyptian tongue because I ran away from the country and I am now eighty. For is it possible that a prophet whom God had known face to face and received the Torah should stutter, especially as there is no mention of this in Talmudic sources.

Like Rashi, Ibn Ezra considers a physical defect, but instead of a stutter, believes certain sounds were difficult for him to pronounce (a lisp?). This theory is supported by a very often told Midrash that comes to illuminate the nature of his speech impediment. The Midrash describes the infant Moses pulling off Pharaoh’s crown (like babies grab adult glasses today). Fearing that this was not an innocent playful act, but in fact a sign of future events Moses was tested with (and here different versions vary) rubies and gleaming, red-hot coals. Moses went to reach for the sparkling gems, but an angel diverted his hand. Burning his fingers, he instinctively brought them to his mouth, and touched and injured his lips.

Although the Midrashic version of the events describes an injury that might cause some speech impediment, it would not support Rashi's view of Moses stuttering. In addition, when YHVH calls to Moses at the burning bush, Moses raises a number of objections to his being chosen: He is not worthy; the leaders may not accept him; the Israelites might not believe him, and finally, he does not have the required verbal skills. If one had a physical impairment, why wait for the fourth objection? Wouldn't that be the first obstacle raised to answering the Divine Call?

Like Moses, many of the prophets were reluctant to accept YHVH's mantle of prophecy. Because it is easy to come up with reasons we need to distinguish between legitimate obstacles and lame excuses. While Moses' expression of humility is commendable, sometimes we shouldn't be too self-effacing. There are times we all feel inadequate to tackle certain tasks, but we should be careful that we are not being 'too humble' simply to avoid our responsibilities. It is easy to be overwhelmed: by work, by responsibilities at home, raising children, or the condition of the planet with global warming and other environmental disasters. It is tempting to say: I can't do it, or I'm the wrong person for the job. Isaiah's advice: don't be discouraged -- YHVH's word will come step by step, letter by letter and word by word. As YHVH reassures Moses, "I will be with you."

Shabbat Shalom

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