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To whom is the prophet teaching knowledge? To whom is he giving wisdom? To those small children - lesson by lesson, line by line, a little here, a little there (Isaiah 28:9-10)..
This Haftara is taken from the earlier part 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 725 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 under Assyria (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 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. Not only will they live under His constant care and guidance, but they will also raise the moral and ethical levels of the other nations.
The texts forming the Haftara imply the strong message that the real threat to the lives of Judah and Israel was not simply the might of Assyria, the great international power of the time, but the nations' own sin in abandoning the Torah, and their lack of faith in G-d. The northern kingdom of the ten tribes was hurtling down in its spiritual decay, with defeat and exile on the way, and the southern kingdom of Judah was moving along the same downhill path. Isaiah opens with the encouraging prophecy that the 'root' of Jacob (pseudonym for Israel when suffering hard times, like their patriarchal ancestor) not be trampled to extinction, but will flourish again in the future. Despite G-d's wrath and retribution for their shortcomings, they will not be decimated, as many other nations. But although G-d preserves the root, the nation has lost its right to His mercy because of their failure to recognize their true role in the Creation - to live according to His laws. Nevertheless, when the time comes, G-d will 'thresh' the world to find the scattered 'kernels' of His still beloved people.
Isaiah brings the word of G-d condemning the Ten Tribes, led by Ephraim. He castigates them for the spiritual products of their wealth: their arrogance and their drunkenness - both of which prevent people from recognizing the truth and acting on it. All 'heads', he says, will 'lose their crowns' and their 'glories will wither'. Judah, states Isaiah, has also 'erred through wine and staggered through aged wine'. Its people have become estranged from their spiritual roots - the Torah, and its values and wisdom. Isaiah therefore declares that they must educated back to their Torah roots as clearly as through they were small children - slowly and accurately - bit by bit - one stage at a time…
A fundamental connection between Parashat Shemot and the Haftara above appears to be the break with tradition. Generations of Hebrew slavery to the Egyptians had obliterated many of the teachings and values of G-d as practiced and revealed through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generations of idol worship, and abuse of wealth and power, had severed the connections with many of the teachings and values of G-d as revealed through the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and taught by Moses and the Prophets.
A passage from the Otzar Tefilla commentary on the Siddur (Additional Service for Rosh Hashanah) relates the following well-known tradition. While the Israelites were suffering under the Egyptians, the angels questioned G-d's heeding their cries and resolve to deliver them. They protested that the Israelites were no better than the Egyptians: 'those are pagans, and those are pagans.' G-d agreed with His angels in principle: but nevertheless was prepared to save them because He 'remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob' (Ex. 2:24).
The implications of this tradition strongly suggest that the enslavement of generations of Israelites in Egypt was not just due to bad luck, but because they became too comfortable there (c.f. Gen.47:27), made a good living, and slowly forgot their traditions - to the extent of absorbing their paganism. However, the Egyptians never forgot that they were not 'their people', and they sought means to curtail their rapid increase and influence. This phenomenon has repeated itself throughout history.
According to this tradition, the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt was, to a small extent, something they - spiritually - brought on themselves. Likewise, the threats of exile and destruction under Assyria were also - spiritually - something that the people of Israel and Judah brought on themselves. Both groups of Israelites had spiritually lost their identity.
The suffering Israelites in Egypt were started on a new page - in being given Moses, the Exodus, and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. The Prophet Isaiah advised that the people of Judah should also start on a new page - be taught Torah values and wisdom clearly: 'lesson by lesson, line by line, a little here, a little there' as appears to be the case of the return to Torah values under Hezekiah (and after Isaiah's death, under Josiah). Why was there no new start for Israel?
One suggestion lies in the following observation. No person in the Torah or the Prophets rose and lived to distinction or notoriety in poverty. All the personalities from the Patriarchs onwards were blessed with a greater or lesser degree of affluence.
The suffering Israelites (none of whom were mentioned by name) lived entirely at the mercy of their slave masters. Their slave mentality had been imposed and enforced on them. 'Those are pagans, and those are pagans', may have been the realities, but slavery and their basic way of thinking was changed to such a degree that it could only be altered by miracles and Divine revelations. Thus the miracles of the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
The text (and archaeological evidence) imply that Israel at the time of Isaiah was much wealthier than Judah. The Israelite kingdom had sinned though squandering its wealth. Instead of creating an educated society based on social justice, its fabric had rotted into a society where the privilege few exploited the masses. As Amos put it:
"They have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals."
"You who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course."
"Father and son go to the same girl and therefore profane My Holy Name."
"On every altar, they recline on garments taken in pledge, and drink wine in the house of the pagan gods from money they extorted from the people." (Amos 2:6-8)
In other words they abused their privileged status as masters to create a spiritually destructive society.
The Israelites in Egypt could listen to Moses and the Revelation - they had very little to lose. The people of Judea who were following in the footsteps of the Northern Kingdom were not sufficiently rooted in crookedness to see reason if it was presented to them in a suitable manner - as demonstrated in the reign of Hezekiah.
But the corruption of Israel - as detailed above - were so immersed in their pagan ideologies that they were rendered incapable of seeing where they were going wrong, even when the it was obvious to the outsider. They would justify themselves saying - 'it is the way we do things here and it fits us well'. There was nothing left, but a new start produced by a prolonged and painful exile.
The idea of even intelligent people becoming incapable of seeing where they are going wrong may be illustrated by the following:
On giving a test some years ago at a highly respected educational establishment, several students obviously copied from each other. In following the matter up, the students themselves did not deny the charge, but bitterly resented my proposal to disqualify them. When I discussed this with the course director I got a very puzzled look, and was derisively asked: 'Are you being moral or something?'
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.
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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