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Friday, August 21, 2009

Parashat Softim - the Haftara

Shoftim – the Haftara

Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Reading date: 22nd August 2009 – 2nd Elul 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text

"Awake, awake, O Zion
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city"
Isaiah 52:1

Whether we live in Israel or not, we must consider our relationship to Zion in our lives.

We continue with the fourth 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 God. 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.


Hearing the Haftara read in Hebrew, careful listeners might recognize some of the verses from the popular Shabbat hymn sung on Friday night: Lecha Dodi. The poet Shlomo Alkabetz used these images to liken the Shabbat bride to the city of Jerusalem: Hitoreri, hitoreri, ... Uri, uri... livshi bigdei tifarteich... Hitna'ari mei'afar kumi...’ - Rouse, rouse yourself, ... Awake, awake, .... Put on your robes of majesty, ...Arise, shake off the dust. Like the metaphor of the Shabbat bride, Isaiah portrays Jerusalem as a young woman shaking off her dust and being clothed in splendor and majesty.

Isaiah describes the restoration of Israel as the return to Zion and the return to Jerusalem. Zion is just one of the many names used to refer to Jerusalem. According to the Rabbis, there are seventy names for Jerusalem. The term Zion in its original and most limited sense referred to the Jebusite fortress situated on it and captured by David. David renamed the hill Ir David’ (City of David), an area now being excavated for David's palace. Zion also referred to the Temple and the Temple grounds, and in the Maccabean period, the Temple Mount was called Har Zion’.

Later, the word Zion by way of synecdoche (the technical term for referring to a whole by a part) came to refer to the whole city of Jerusalem, and even all of Israel. Zion and Jerusalem are often used in biblical poetry: For out of ‘Zion’ shall go forth Torah, and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem. Even Israel's national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’, refers to the Jewish homeland as the 'land of Zion and Jerusalem.' The movement to return to Israel is not 'Israelism' but 'Zionism.' And in our prayers, the term Israel usually refers to the people of Israel, not the country or land, and Zion is used to refer to the geographical location. The Jewish heart's compass points to Zion. (Today, Har Zion is a popular name for synagogues.) Finally, Zion is not only a term for Jerusalem and the land of Israel. YHVH says to Zion: "You are My people" (51:16). The Children of Israel are also 'Zion'.

Today, what does it mean to be a 'Zionist'? When Israel is attacked, people around the world rally to protect it, but in relative peaceful times, people in North America are by and large, rather comfortable with their lives outside of Israel.

Cynthia Ozick relates how growing up she played a street game where each player names the city she has "come from." So her playmate Peggy O'Brien chose Dublin, and Maria Viggiano, Naples. How, Ozick asks, does an eight year old in the borough of Bronx choose 'Jerusalem' as her inheritance?

The other verse in this week's haftara readers might recognize is one that has been turned into a song (and a popular Israeli folkdance) found in verse 7: Mah navu al he'harim...’ As we consider our own inheritance in the Zion, consider and meditate on the words of Isaiah. Do not forget, even those not living in Israel, your relationship and responsibility to the Land.

Shabbat Shalom

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