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 www.shefaisrael.com
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Parashat Behar - Bechukotai - the Haftara
Reading date: 16th May 2009 – 22nd Iyyar 5769
Our Highlighted Haftara Text
"O Hope of Israel (Mikveh Yisrael)!O Adonai, All who forsake You shall be put to shame,Those in the land who turn from You shall be doomed,For they have forsaken AdonaiThe Fount of living waters."Jeremiah 17:13
YHVH is both Israel's hope and the source for Divine purification.
Our third double portion in Leviticus, Behar-Bechukotai finally brings the book of Leviticus to a close, and we bid a fond adieu to the rules for the priests and the details of the sacrifices. Ashkenazim and Sephardim read slightly different verses from Jeremiah 32 when the portion Behar is read separately (6-27 and 6-22 respectively). But when the portions are combined, both communities read the haftara normally assigned for Bechukotai, Jeremiah 16:19-17:14.
This passage is a collection of various bits and pieces, as if Jeremiah's scribe Baruch collected some of his notes into one document. Leviticus ends with a series of curses tochecha and blessings, and Jeremiah also describes curses and blessings: "cursed be the person who trusts in people" and its corollary ("blessed are those who trust in the Eternal") 'Baruch hagever asher yivtach ba'adonai' (familiar from the Grace after Meals). The Haftara reinforces the Torah's emphasis on the importance of obedience to the Almighty and the covenant.
Jeremiah lived during the reign of King Josiah who restored the Temple order and instituted religious reforms after finding an ancient scroll believed to be the book of Deuteronomy. Some scholars identify Jeremiah as the author of the book of Deuteronomy. The Kingdom of Judah was caught in the crossfire between the superpowers of Egypt to the south and the Babylonians in the North. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. Egypt marched through the land of Israel to attack Babylonia, and en route battled with the Israelites at Megiddo, killing Josiah. The Egyptians however were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BCE, and Jerusalem came under Nebuchadnezzar's rule. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was razed and the Temple destroyed. The religious and political elite were exiled to Babylonia, but a remnant of the Jewish population fled to Egypt and took Jeremiah with them.
Looking at the Hebrew text of this weeks haftara I see it 17:13 contains the Scripture where we find Jeremiah calling YHVH, "Mikve Yisrael, The Hope of Israel." A mikva is a ritual bath; the root (k.v.h) refers to a pool of water, and is found in Genesis, when YHVH says, "yekavu hamayim, let the waters be gathered" (2:9). Here in Jeremiah, the word mikva (or mikve) is understood to mean 'hope' just like the word for Israel's national anthem from the same root, Hatikvah. (Mikve Israel was also the name of the first modern Jewish agricultural settlement (established in Holon, south of Tel Aviv and) founded by Charles Netter in June 15, 1870. Mikve Israel was the name of one of the oldest Jewish congregations (Philadelphia, 18th century) and is also a popular name for (usually Sephardic) synagogues.
If Mikva can mean both a pool of water, and hope, what is the connection between the two? In Israel, having a storehouse of collected rainwater would certainly mean one has hope. All through Israel one can find ancient cisterns that the Israelites carved out of rock. A pit without water would be a symbol of hopelessness, and Jeremiah would know- like Joseph, he was thrown into a muddy pit (Jer. 38: 6). It makes sense to call YHVH, Israel's hope (the way the verse is usually translated) but the verse continues, "Adonai, the Fount of Living Waters, M'kor Mayim Hayim." YHVH is also being compared to a pool of water. Jeremiah has used this water imagery for YHVH before, contrasting YHVH with the water of the Nile and the Euphrates.
For My people have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, which cannot even hold water... What then is the good of your going to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile? And what is the good of your going to Assyria, to drink the waters of the Euphrates? Jer. 2:13, 18
Jeremiah's use of the imagery of YHVH as mikva, used for ritual purification is the perfect ending for the book of Leviticus that focused on ritual purity. But what does it mean to say, YHVH is our 'mikvah'!? YHVH is both Israel's hope and the source for Divine purification.
At the end the last Mishnah for the tractate on Yom Kippur (Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 8:9), (a day that revolves around holiness and purity) Rabbi Akiva playing with these two meanings of mikva (ritual bath and hope) teaches: "Happy are you, Israel!Who is it before whom you purify? And who is it that purifies you?Your Parent which is in heaven, as it is said: "And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean." (Ezek. 36:25). And it further says: "Adonai, the Hope of Israel." Just as the mikva renders clean the unclean, so does the Holy Blessed One, render Israel clean."
Akiva asks two questions: Who is it ... you purify? And who ... purifies you? It is not clear who is doing the purifying. The two questions suggest that there are two aspects to purification; something we do and something YHVH does. We can clean our bodies by going to the mikva, but only YHVH can clean our souls. According to the text Reishit Chochmah, the mikva contains something essential of YHVH, and just as we immerse our bodies in the water, at the same time our souls must 'cleave' to YHVH. The Shiloh (Isaiah Horowitz) suggests that purification of the body only makes one tahor (pure), while separating oneself from transgressions makes one both tahor and kadosh.
With its emphasis on purity, it is easy to overlook Leviticus' central message: to live a life that is holy. Recalling this image of ever-present water, Jeremiah describes the person who trusts in Adonai, "They shall be like a tree planted near water, sinking its roots by a stream, never noticing when the heat comes, its leaves green, careless of times of drought, never failing to bear fruit" (17:8).