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Friday, August 14, 2009

Parashat Re'eh - the Haftara

Parashat Re'eh - the Haftara

Isaiah 54:11-55:5

Reading date: 15thAugust 2009 – 25th Av 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text

"Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water,
Even if you have no money:
Come, buy food and eat:
Buy food without money,
Wine and milk without cost."
Isaiah 55:1

Life requires a balance of physical sustenance, emotional nourishment and spiritual joy.

We continue with the third 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, with the upcoming season of the High Holy Days. YHVH promises the restoration of Zion, but at the same time, calls on the people of Israel to turn back to YHVH. This is the essence of ‘teshuva’, repentance.


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.


Our series of Haftarot of consolation continue with the message of YHVH's restoration. The first verses of the haftara describe YHVH showering the people of Israel with material riches: gems and precious stones. YHVH is the source of power and He promises safety from oppression. The haftara then continues with an additional theme: in addition to this promised material prosperity and physical security, YHVH invites the people of Israel to be in a mutual, covenantal relationship.

YHVH's declaration "Come for water" (Isa. 55:1) is universally understood by commentators to be a metaphor for Torah or divine instruction. In a famous Midrash, the Rabbis compare the Torah to water, using our verse from the haftara as its 'proof text'.

The words of Torah are likened to water, as it is written,

O all who thirst, come for water, Is. 55:1

Just as water goes from one end of the earth to the other, so does Torah go from one end of the earth to the other;
Just as water is a life source, so is Torah a source of life;
Just as water is free to all, so is Torah a free commodity;
Just as water comes from heaven, so too is the Torah's origin in heaven;
Just as water makes many sounds, so is the Torah heard in many voices;
Just as water quenches one's thirst, so does Torah satisfy the soul...

Like our verse, the Midrash in fact continues to compare the Torah to milk and wine: The words of Torah are likened to milk. Just as milk is pure and clean, so the Torah is pure and clean. The words of Torah are likened to wine. Just as wine cheers the spirit, so Torah cheers the spirit, as it is written, "Wine that cheers the hearts..." (Ps. 104:14). (Shir HaShirim Rabbah I:19)

These three liquids, water, milk and wine are all important symbols in Torah. Water is life's most basic requirement. Rain is the ultimate source of fresh water, and in the Torah water (rain) are gifts from YHVH. No human involvement is required. Milk is also a basic requirement for infants, but afterwards is more of a luxury than a necessity. Life-sustaining mothers' milk comes from women, but like rain, no conscious human action is required to produce it. The nourishment of Torah and the bounty of the land of Israel are described as "milk and honey." Finally- wine, a symbol of joy that sanctifies Shabbat, festivals, and life cycle events is produced by humans [in partnership with YHVH]. YHVH produces the grapes, but human effort is required to transform the juice into wine.

Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman in The Women's Haftarah Commentary (ed. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein) suggests that the three fluids water, milk, and wine represent physical sustenance, emotional nourishment, and spiritual joy respectively. A shortage of clean drinking water severely impacts on the quality of life. Individuals who lack loving human relationships develop poorly. All three components are necessary for a healthy, balanced life.

Shabbat Shalom

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