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

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Parashat Devarim - the Haftara

Devarim – the Haftara
Isaiah 1:1-27
Reading date: 25th July 2009 – 4th Av 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara text
“Hear the word of Adonai, you chieftains of Sodom; Give your ear to YHVH’s instruction, you folk of Gomorrah.” Isaiah 1:10

Worst of all are those who pretend to be righteous.

This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim. This portion always falls on the Shabbat before Tisha b'Av and has the special name: ‘Shabbat Hazon’, taken from the opening words of the book of Isaiah and the first words of the haftara: ‘Hazon Yishayahu’- The vision of Isaiah. This is the first (of seven) haftarot of consolation. This first haftara is from the opening prophecy of Isaiah; the remaining six are from what modern scholars call the 'Second Isaiah.'

The verse in the haftara "Alas, ‘eichah’ she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice..." (1:21) echoes the opening of the book of Lamentations (‘Eichah’ in Hebrew).

Isaiah, son of Amotz 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. While Isaiah hoped that the northern kingdom of Israel would be restored (regrettably, the ten northern 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.

Listen up! Listening is a key idea in Torah. After the opening verse that identifies Isaiah and his contemporaries (the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah), Isaiah declares: "Hear O heavens, and give ear O earth..." This first word, ‘shim'u’ foreshadows the ‘Shema’ that appears in next week's Torah portion, Va'etchanan. Isaiah is deliberately using this language; Moses begins his final discourse, "Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!" (Deut. 32:1).

But then, Isaiah turns to his listeners, calling them Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah qualifies the comparison: unlike Sodom and Gomorrah that were totally destroyed, YHVH will save a remnant of Zion. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Syrian-African rift, (probably an earthquake accompanied by the release of sulfur and bitumen and volatile gases from the earth's crust ignited by lightning) was a cataclysmic event. Everything was obliterated and in the Torah the memory of this event has come to be a model of YHVH's destruction for wicked behavior.

Even today, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are synonymous with 'iniquity and wickedness,' but what was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? Some believe that the sin of the cities was homosexuality, as the residents wanted to have sex with the [male] angels, and the verb 'sodomize' even became a legal term to refer to homosexual acts.

Other traditional interpretations suggest that the sin of Sodom was their greediness and lack of compassion. The Talmud tells the story of a young girl who gives a poor man some bread. Outraged at this act of kindness, the residents smear her with honey and hang her from the city wall until she is stung to death by bees. Pirkei Avot compares four types of people. One says, "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine." This is understandably wicked. The one who says "what is yours is yours and what is mine is yours" is righteous. You might think, "what is mine is mine and what's yours is yours" is the average person; but surprisingly this is called, the 'character of Sodom.' To mind one's own business and not care for others is not the highest ethical behavior.

There is even a story of the guest house in Sodom where guests had to fit the bed. Tall guests would have their feet chopped off; short guests would be put on the 'rack' to be stretched. This story demonstrates that the problem was that while they observed the letter of the law, they did it in a way that violated the very essence of what the laws were trying to instill.
How easy it is to quote out of context. "I take no delight in the blood of bulls ..." or "I hate your new moons, your festival days..." Is YHVH (or at least Isaiah) against ritual? Isaiah's language is pretty strong. "Bring me no more futile offerings; incense is an abomination to Me." An abomination? According to Exodus, incense is holy (Ex. 30: 37). But these examples are how Isaiah is choosing to illustrate the Israelites’ behavior that he has compared to Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are those who are clearly wicked and those who are clearly righteous. But worst of all are those who pretend to be righteous, who observe the ritual minutiae without acting ethically. These are the Sodomites today. Only with justice and repentance will Zion be redeemed.

Shabbat Shalom

No comments: