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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Parashat Yitro - the Haftara

Parashat Yitro – the Haftara
Isaiah 6:1 -7-6; 9:5 - 7
Reading date: 14th February 2009 – 20th Shvat 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
“And YHVH said, 'Go, say to that people: Hear indeed, but do not understand; See indeed, but do not grasp. Dull that people's mind, Stop its ears, and seal its eyes -- Lest, seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself.”
Isaiah 6:9-10

Is YHVH not speaking, or are we not listening?

Last week's triumphant crossing at the sea now brings the Israelites to the foot of Mt. Sinai. In this week's parasha, the Israelites encounter YHVH and hear the Ten Commandments. The Rabbis selected a portion from Isaiah that has similar language and imagery: wings, holy, smoke. (Ashkenazim read Is. 6:1-7:6; 9:5,6; Sephardim read a shorter selection: Is. 6:1-13). This week's text includes the famous verse: ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh’ (holy, holy, holy) that is recited during the sanctification prayer (Kedushah) found in the Amidah.

Like the appearance of YHVH at Sinai, Isaiah also describes a vision of YHVH. Isaiah deliberately evokes the image of Moses by describing himself as a man of impure lips. (As an aside, a few week's ago we encountered the language of 'kvad peh' 'heavy of speech,' and the image of 'uncircumcised lips' and the famous Midrash of the burning coals. Few people realize that this image already appears in this week's haftara text: Then one of the seraphs [angelic beings] flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my lips and declared, 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away.' (Is. 6:6))

Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah in the latter half of the 8th century B.C.E. During this turbulent period, the larger, Northern Kingdom (called Israel) hoped to conquer the southern kingdom of Judah. After Isaiah's description of the futile attempts of the Northern Kingdom, the Rabbis append a two verse epilogue of a messianic vision from Isaiah: the throne of King David will be established.

YHVH's revelation at Sinai is the central event of the Torah; YHVH took the Israelites out of Egypt in order to meet them at Sinai. The dramatic imagery of the giving of the Ten Commandments is described with smoke and thunder and lightning: a spectacular sound and light show! The text seems to be saying: 'If you were there, you couldn't miss it!' But the late philosopher Emil Fackenheim has suggested that if an agnostic had been present at Mount Sinai, he would have heard all the thunder and seen all the lightning and wondered what all the fuss was about.

We know that Israel is on the Syrian-African rift and no stranger to seismic activity, so a rational approach would understand this as the description of an earthquake. Earthquakes are occasionally accompanied by combustible gases that escape the earth's crust and ignite. Clearly this event was literally and metaphorically 'earth-shattering.' But then again who pushed the button for the earthquake?

According to Exodus, it was 'all of Israel' who witnessed the thunder and the lightning. In the Haftara, Isaiah also describes a vision of YHVH and even though his lips have been purified, this time his message is not heard. Like Pharaoh's hardened heart, their ears will be stopped up; their eyes dulled. Today, it seems that YHVH no longer speaks like the Torah describes. If we hear YHVH's voice, most of us do not feel the earth move.

The Torah text says that the Israelites did not hear YHVH. They saw the thunder (the Hebrew ‘kolot’ can also mean 'voices'), (Ex. 20:15) and YHVH says, "You yourselves saw that I spoke with you from the very heavens." Saw? Shouldn't the text in both places say, 'hear'? This should strikes us as unusual, since in Hebrew, the central verb is 'Shema' to listen (and to understand). The use of the verb 'ra'ah' (literally, to see) for audible phenomenon suggests to the Rabbis that the Israelites 'saw the sounds' and 'heard the visions.' In other words, the experience of Revelation was so unique and overwhelmingly intense, the normal boundaries of our senses were not observed. Arthur Green writes that seeing YHVH's voice means 'that each one uniquely experienced the divine voice speaking within his or her own soul. To this all the rest of religion -- indeed, perhaps all the rest of life-- is merely commentary.' (The Language of Truth, pg. 106)

The Midrash (which connects the giving of the Torah and Isaiah's 'Holy, Holy, Holy' found in the Haftara) suggests that what was unique about Sinai, was not that YHVH spoke, but that the world was silent:
R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Yohanan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, not one of the ‘ofannim’ [angelic beings] stirred a wing, not one of the seraphim said, 'Holy, Holy, Holy.' The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak -- the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth: "I am YHVH your God."

Lawrence Kushner has called this: God’s Dolby Noise-Reduction System. Kushner asks us to imagine turning off the sound of the television and watching. And to play with the contrast/brightness till there is no picture. Now- "You see nothing. You hear nothing. But you continue staring at the black soundless glass rectangle. For something is there. Someone is speaking and looking. Only you can't see them. From within a darkened space a message issues." (Honey from the Rock, pg. 33)

What was it that the Israelites saw or heard? What was it about Sinai that was so transformative for those present? If we were there would we have experienced more than thunder and lightning? Perhaps only when we turn off all the noise and distractions around us, can we start hearing. Perhaps when we are ready to acknowledge that our lives have meaning, we will start seeing. The question we must ask ourselves is, is YHVH not speaking, or are we not listening?

Shabbat Shalom

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