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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Parashat Ki Tetze - the Haftara

Ki Tetze – the Haftara
Isaiah 54:1-10
Reading date: 29th August 2009 – 9th Elul 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text

"This is like the days of Noah to Me--
I promised then never again to cover the earth with the waters of Noah.
So now I promise never again to be angry with you or rebuke you.
Though the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
My love shall never depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed-- says the One who loves you, the Eternal."
Isaiah 54:9-10

God feels close when we nurture our relationship through prayer and mitzvot.

We continue with the fifth Sabbath of Consolation (a series of seven special haftarot: shiva d'nechemta’. These seven readings are linked to the calendar, bridging the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Israel. Like last week, there are phrases in this haftara that Alkabetz borrowed in his Shabbat hymn Lecha Dodi: Lo teivoshi...’ You shall not be put to shame (54:4), and ‘Yamin u'smol..’ You shall spread out to the right and the left (54:3). This week's haftara combined with the haftara of Re'eh from two weeks ago make up the haftara of Parashat Noah. The prophet recalls the covenant YHVH made with Noah (vs. 9) and like that promise, YHVH promises never again to be angry with Israel.


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.


The prophets often compared YHVH's relationship with Israel to the relationship of a husband and wife (see Hosea's haftara in Parashat Bamidbar). This week, too, Isaiah says, "For Your husband is your Maker, the One called YHVH of the hosts of heaven...The Eternal calls you "wife" again... (vs.5,6). The image of YHVH, as husband who will take back his divorced wife, symbolizes how Israel in exile will be returned to in triumph to Zion.
Rabbi Plaut points out that today, the metaphor of divorce is problematic because divorce laws in Torah are not egalitarian. Only the husband divorces this wife. (Even today, especially in Israel, the issue of agunot’ -- women are 'anchored' to their recalcitrant husbands is difficult). However, even though it is troubling, in ancient Israel it made sense, as YHVH and the people of Israel were certainly not considered equal partners in the relationship. On the other hand, I am not sure that the metaphor is any more challenging than the child-parent metaphor, Avinu Malkeinu’ - our Parent, our Ruler that will be prominent in the High Holy Day liturgy that is fast approaching. Unlike the parent-child relationship, the key word that describes the marriage relationship (even in non-egalitarian or traditional marriages) is the word 'covenant.'
In fact, in Hebrew the wedding ceremony is called brit nisu'im’. This Hebrew term may not be that familiar; the word 'brit' is probably more familiar to us from the ceremony of ‘brit milah’ - covenant of circumcision. The Hebrew word brit’ can refer to two very important life cycle moments: birth and marriage. This may be a Midrashic stretch, but I think the word 'brit' could also be appropriately used to refer to the "bar/bat mitzvah."
I find it interesting that all three life cycle events: birth, bar/bat mitzvah (via this 'midrash'), and marriage are therefore linguistically or conceptually connected to this notion of 'covenant.' But how do the three life cycle events differ? Well, of course no one asks the infant their opinion. Parents make a unilateral decision to enter the child into the community. At a bar/bat mitzvah, the child has more of a say-- indeed the whole significance of the day is to acknowledge the child's transition from a minor into an adult member of the community. The adolescent accepts the "yoke of the commandments" (in traditional terms: ‘ol hamitzvot’ but this lacks certain mutuality. It is only the brit’ that is in the context of marriage that refers to a mature, mutual covenant.
Plaut concludes with one more point: even if the husband/wife metaphor is generally inappropriate for modern readers, "in one major aspect it is as applicable today as it was in Isaiah's time. Love and trust need constant nurturing in human marriage, and faithlessness will destroy it." YHVH, too, feels close when we nurture our relationship through prayer and mitzvot, and as we enter the season of ‘teshuva’, Isaiah's message is as true today as it was in his time.

Shabbat Shalom

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