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Friday, September 11, 2009

Parashat Nitzavim - Vayelech - the Haftara

Nitzavim – Vayelech – the Haftara

Isaiah 55:6 – 56:8

Reading date 12th September 2009  -  23rd Elul 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text

"YHVH thought: Surely they are My people, Children who will not play false. So YHVH was their deliverer. In all their troubles, YHVH was troubled, and the angel of YHVH's presence delivered them.
In YHVH's love and pity, YHVH Himself redeemed them, Raised them, and exalted them
all the days of old."
  Isaiah 63:8,9

As we enter this season of repentance, YHVH will take one step towards us for every step we take to return.

We have finally reached the seventh and last Shabbat of Consolation. Much of the imagery and poetry has been used by Isaiah before: the metaphor of marriage, being clothed in splendor, and Zion's feeling of being forsaken is replaced with gratitude for YHVH's deliverance. This is the climactic conclusion to the seven weeks that we have travelled from Tisha B'av to the High Holy Day season.This Shabbat is also the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah (beginning this year on Friday night, Sept. 22).


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.


Someone once noted that in their edition of the Chumash, there were some words  printed without vowels, and wanted to know the significance of these unvocalized words. What they were noticing was the phenomenon of k'ri [read] and k'tiv [written]. Different chumashim display this either as a footnote, as marginalia, or, as in the case of the Conservative movement's Etz Hayim edition, right in the text itself. Around the 10th century, a group of scholars arose who established the correct text of the Bible. They are called the Masorites, from the Hebrew word, Masorah, which means to transmit, and denotes 'tradition.' (Indeed, the Hebrew version of Fiddler on the Roof has Tevye singing, "Masoret, masoret..." The Masorites were also responsible for the vowels (which they invented) and the musical notes (trope) that were added to the original biblical text.
In their careful work of establishing the correct text, these sages noted that sometimes an accepted reading was theologically difficult, or incorrect (comparing differing reliable manuscripts due to a scribal error), or in some cases not 'proper' for public reading, and therefore provided a substitute word. By the tenth century, the biblical text's sanctity was accepted, and altering the text was not possible, so the solution was to still write the text the accepted way, but a marginal notation indicated how the text was to be read. Indeed, a Torah reader who did not follow the k'ri  would be removed from his position. Those who claim that the Torah has 'codes' in its letter sequences might reconsider their position since the Bible has about fifteen hundred of such variants.
Which brings us to this week's haftarah, and a very interesting example of k'ri and k'tiv [written]. The Hebrew word for 'no' is lo, spelled lamed-aleph. The word, his, is a homophone: lo, but spelled differently, lamed-vuv. The words sound the same, but look different. According to the Masoretic text as written (k'tiv), and supported by the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation, verse 9 reads: "God was their Deliverer in all their troubles; no [lo- with an aleph] angel or messenger was with God, but God's own Presence delivered them." This theology is familiar from the Pesach Haggadah's insistence (notwithstanding the explicit reference to an angel for the actual Exodus, cf. Num. 20:16), that God alone, not an angel or a messenger, delivered Israel. Rashi, too, agrees with this reading.
But the more interesting reading follows the musical cantillation marks (which also indicate phrasing) and breaks the sentence differently, according to the Masoretic k'ri which translates the lo as His (God's): "In all their troubles, God was troubled, and the angel of God's presence delivered them." This reading is not supported by the ancient texts, or even by the conclusion of the verse that says, "God, Godself redeemed them," yet this midrashic understanding has been popular, and all ten contemporary translations I checked follow this rabbinic theology. Ibn Ezra, who is normally noted for his 'pshat' approach (even more than Rashi) agrees with this latter reading, that when Israel was afflicted, God suffers. (Christianity has made the idea of God's suffering along with humanity, or indeed, on behalf of humanity a central pillar).

The Rabbis used this verse as the prooftext for a midrash on the burning bush. Starting with the verse from Song of Songs (5:2) 'My dove, my twin.' Rabbi Yannai said: 'As with twins, when the head of one aches, the other also feels it, too, so [aware of how radical was this theology the Rabbis add: if one dare attribute such words to God]-- the Holy One said, 'I am with him in trouble' (Ps. 91:15). And again, 'In all their afflictions, God is afflicted.' " (Isa. 63:9) The Holy One said to Moses: "Do you not sense that I live in distress whenever Israel finds themselves in distress? Just look at the place out of which I speak to you-- out of a thornbush. I am--if one may ascribe such a statement to God--a partner in their pain. Ex. Rabbah 2:5.
God is not aloof, and as we enter this season of repentance, God too, wants us to return. This shortens our path since for every step we take in God's direction, God, too, takes a step closer to us. "Turn back to me—says the LORD of Hosts—and I will turn back to you" (Zechariah 1:3).

Shabbat Shalom

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