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Do not fear, O worm - Jacob, O men of Israel! I shall be your Helper, says G-d; and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 41:14).
Like the previous two weeks, the Haftara is taken from later chapters of the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah was a navi: an individual who personally received the word of G-d and conveyed it to the people. Isaiah himself lived at around 720 BCE. That was when both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were going through spiritual and moral decline. In consequence, his earlier prophesies - messages directly from G-d - foresaw the exiles of both the northern Kingdom of Israel (which took place in his lifetime), and ultimately the southern Kingdom of Judah.
The Book of Isaiah also contains deeply inspiring words of encouragement, applying to both the Israelites and the world at large. It repeatedly stresses, as seen in this Haftara, that the Israelite exiles and Divine punishments suffered will be temporary, and that G-d will eventually redeem His people and settle them permanently in His land.
This Haftara is a continuation of that read on Shabbat Nachamu (Haftara of Parashat Va-etchanan) - which together are words of comfort to Israel for the trauma of the Babylonian exile (from before 586 BCE) that was about to come to an end with its defeat by Cyrus, King of Persia. During this period of turmoil in the latter part of the exile, the Jews would have been caught in a most dangerous position between the Babylonians and their Persian attackers - each one likely to accuse them of being an ally of the other. The Haftara encourages the Jews to maintain their optimistic spirit and faith even in the face of their own trauma of being on foreign soil during such a dangerous period. "He gives strength to the weary, He gives abundant might to the powerless." (40:29)
In fact Cyrus did become the great power of the region after defeating the Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE, and allowed to Jews to return to the Holy Land (Chronicles II 36:23). Historians point out that this also applied to other captured nations, and some contend that Cyrus' declaration was not so much humanitarian as pragmatic: by letting the disaffected foreigners return to their lands of origin, he would turn them into useful friends and informers keeping him in touch with events in his far-flung empire.
Why, in the heading, does the Book of Isaiah refer to Israel as 'worm - Jacob'? Few words are more pejorative that 'worm'.
Rashi and Metzudat David understand that word to refer to the Jew's strength and weaknesses. Their strength does not lie in their physical strength and warfare, but in their connection with G-d through prayer - through their mouths. Metzudat David compares the quiet, but effective power of the worm gnawing through wood, to that of Jew's quiet, but effective power of prayer in obtaining His support.
However, other creatures go through life silently, unobtrusively, and yet effectively. Why did the Prophet compare the Jews to a worm, rather than some to some other more aesthetic member of the animal kingdom?
A suggestion lies in a more careful look at the place the worm occupies in natural life.
Many worms play an important role in soil ecology. By being continually loosened, stirred up, and aerated by the action of earthworms, soil is made more fertile and drainage is improved. They usually live in the upper layers of the soil, but in winter they descend more deeply to escape frost. During unusually hot weather they also penetrate downward to avoid dehydration. Such worms shun daylight but frequently come to the surface of the soil at night to feed and to deposit their casts, improving soil fertility.
This is the implied message of the Prophet: the Jews in exile are indeed comparable to the worm. When their conduct - in all fields - promotes the values and traditions revealed to them through the Torah, they make their host society all the better. Indeed, history shows many countries that had been culturally, professionally, and financially enriched through their Jewish communities. Like the worm with the soil, they made their 'host society' 'more fertile'.
There are times when, like in the war between Babylon and Persia, the Jews are best out of sight: in that case, to prevent being caught in between two very powerful empires in a campaign that is nothing to do with them. The Prophet urges that the Jews should be like the worm - 'penetrate the soil deeply and continue their good work down there'. In such a situation they should 'shun daylight' - keeping a high profile, as physically they are too weak to survive when things inevitably go wrong. Instead 'work at night' - by keeping a low profile…
Indeed, even when not in exile, G-d did not express His Power to Elijah in wind, earthquake, or fire, but through 'the still small voice' (Kings I 19:13). And today great deeds are achieved not through pomp and ceremony, but through 'the still small voice' - exemplified by the 'mouth' of the 'worm' - the humble people… as the following story illustrates:
Old Man Haimson… hardly seemed like the hero type. But heroes… are not limited to battlefields and stages. They can flourish in even the unlikely setting of a half-empty shul on Simchat Torah eve. This is a shul in a dying section, and a petty man has gained leadership of the few minyanim of Jews who had not yet moved away. Atta Hareita had been sold, and its buyer gave the president the privilege of honors of saying the verses that launch an evening of Torah celebration. The crowd was small enough for each man to recite a pasuk (verse), but petty men will seek to settle scores at even such a moment of spiritual elevation. Berel, the unfortunate family-less friendless schlimazel, rubbed the president the wrong way. So he was bypassed. The slight was not lost upon the small congregation, but who had time for demanding justice when the … hakafot were about to begin? Well, Old Man Haimson, who appeared to be the last man in the world to even be aware of what's going on, suddenly came up with a request that Atta Hareita should be sold for a second time. What shul president would pass up an opportunity to effortlessly gain a few more dollars for the congregation's depleted treasury? Old Man Haimson won the bidding with a respectable sum and asked the president to honor Berel with the very first pasuk. (Weinbach M, in Wolpin N: Seasons of the Soul, p.48).
As the Talmud recalls:
Joseph told his father, R. Joshua b. Levi, about his vision of the World to Come as he momentarily stood on the threshold of death:
"I saw a topsy-truvy world. This who are on top in this world are lowly up there, while those on the bottom here are on the top up there."
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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