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Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Parashat Ekev - the Haftara
Reading date: 8thAugust 2009 – 18th Av 5769
Our Highlighted Haftara Text
"Zion says, 'Adonai has forsaken me,My Lord has forgotten me.' Can a woman forget her baby,Or disown the child of her womb? Though she might forget,I never could forget you.See, I have engraved youOn the palms of My hands...." Isaiah 49:14-16a
Even with suffering we can still choose to believe that our lives have meaning, and to believe in YHVH.
We continue with the second Sabbath of Consolation (a series of seven special haftarot: ‘shiva d'nechemta’. Although these seven readings are linked to the calendar, bridging the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Israel, this week's reading also has a connection to the Torah reading of Parashat Ekev. "See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands," YHVH says (Isa. 49:16). This parallels the reading from Deuteronomy (that is read as the second paragraph of the Shema) where YHVH asks that we impress the words upon our hearts and hands (Deut. 11:18).
Isaiah, son of Amotz is the most popular of the prophets for the Haftarah: 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.
When something good happens to us, we rarely ask, "Why us?! What did we do to deserve this good fortune?!" But when something bad happens, we're quick to complain, "Why doesn't YHVH do something? Why doesn't YHVH answer our prayers?" This was the feeling of the exiles. Isaiah is describing the despair of the exiles who ask, "Has YHVH forgotten us?" In the haftara, YHVH reassures the people of Israel that He will never forget Zion.
I once heard a rabbi say that YHVH always answers our prayers- but sometimes the answer is no. On one level I understand this has some truth to it- as the Rolling Stones sing, "we can't always get what we want." It's also true that sometimes what we think we want is often not the best thing for us. As the Chinese proverb says, 'be careful what you wish for.' Just like our children, we often have very limited perspectives and make poor choices. As parents, we often say no, and for good reason. Eating chocolate ice cream right before supper might seem like a good idea, but when our children ask for it, we say no. Why should YHVH be any different?
But on another level, YHVH answering 'no' is a big problem. Unless we're prepared to say that our unanswered prayers were not sincere enough, or we were not deserving, YHVH is not off the hook. In the same week of a coal mine tragedy, where family and friends were praying for their loved ones' rescue, a woman reported winning the lottery: "YHVH has answered my prayers." Well, that must have been some mighty praying, if her prayers to win the lottery were answered, while the coal miners sadly lost their lives. Was YHVH too busy arranging for the winning ticket to organize the rescue efforts? We have to really wonder about YHVH's priorities, or come to the conclusion that either YHVH can't help, or worse, YHVH won't help or (the worst heresy)-that there is no God at all. The truth is, there are many reasons why YHVH does not appear to always answer our prayers the way we would like Him to. One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is, is it His will and timing and is it the best for us.
As Israel has been continually fighting wars for more than 60 years, we wish that YHVH could just wave a magic wand and make Israel secure. Some believe that reciting prayers or affixing kosher mezuzahs will be an effective defensive strategy. But as the God character (played by Morgan Freeman) says in the film Bruce Almighty, 'I don't work that way.' So what good is YHVH and what good is prayer?
These questions challenge the very foundations of religious faith and there are no easy answers. But what is interesting is that individual survivors of the Holocaust walked out of the same camps either absolutely convinced that there was no God, or more steadfast than ever in their belief in the Creator. In other words, the existence of suffering does not by itself seem to determine whether one believes or not. Indeed, Vickor Frankl, himself a survivor went on to discover the meaning of his life which he articulates in his classic volume, Man's Search for Meaning. Even suffering, according to Frankl, can have meaning. He writes, "In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.... They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom."
Even with suffering, we can still choose to believe that our lives have meaning, and to believe in YHVH.