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Go out! Go out! Leave that place! Don't touch anything unclean! Leave her midst! Keep pure, you that carry G-d's vessels. For you will not leave in haste, nor will you depart in flight…' (Isaiah 52:11-12)
Whereas the Haftara to Parashat Ekev (the previous chapters in Isaiah) opens and closes with G-d comforting the city of Zion, this Haftara opens and closes with G-d comforting His People and their return to Zion. Although the immediate context of the Haftara is the return of the Babylonian exile long after Isaiah's death, it may also be understood to convey the future Messianic climax which becomes the theme of the final chapters of this very lengthy book. Indeed, parts of the Haftara could appear to be thinly disguised accounts of events witnessed by many of today's Jerusalem residents, 2,700 years on.
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 scene of the middle section of Isaiah with which contains the Haftara is some 200 years later - relating to primarily to the end of the Babylonian exile, although it could be also be hinting towards redemption in a much later era. This part of the book mentions Cyrus II, Emperor of the Medes and the Persians, by name. G-d declares him to be His shepherd and His anointed (44:28 and 45:1). Following his declaration, some of the Jews returned, physically and spiritually, to rebuild a much-devastated Holy Land. And the last eleven chapters of the Book relates to the final redemption and the end of the Diaspora: when 'all Israel will emerge out of its nations of dispersion and reassemble on G-d's sacred mountain of Jerusalem.' (66:20)
The Book of Isaiah 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, in honor, prosperity, and with worldwide influence.
The content of the Haftara declares to the Israelites in exile that the future will bring a new era. No matter how dire the situation, it is a basic principle of faith to bear in mind that G-d can bring Redemption at any moment. But the Israelites themselves must rise to the event of the Redemption, when it comes.
They do not do that by forgetting their past, but by changing the mentality of their past. They must stop seeing themselves in world terms as having their destiny shaped by the agendas of other nations and peoples. In modern terms, that can even include families here in Jerusalem, returning night after night to their small apartments, sadly contemplating the past over glasses of strong tea, surrounded by the sepia-tinted photographs of family members of the pre-Holocaust era, and worrying about what fresh disaster the next day could bring. But when the Redemption comes, these agendas will be of no threat to the Israelites. The very people who treated the Israelites as being fit only to trampled on (c.f. 52:23), will be the focus of G-d's wrath, in place of Israel who experienced the same for their own repeated shortcomings.
G-d, through the Prophet, instructs the Israelites how they should react to Redemption when it arrives authentically - when indeed it is obvious to all and sundry that 'G-d has bared his Holy arm (c.f. Deut. 9:29) before the eyes of all nations' and 'all the… earth sees the salvation of… G-d'. (52:10). They must 'rise, shake off the dust' of the past, and see themselves as free men by 'removing the bonds' of the mentality of the exile from their 'necks'. (52:2). They must rejoice enthusiastically when the footsteps of the Messiah are relayed through genuine sources (56:7-9). They must leave their places of exile with poise and dignity - 'since G-d marches before you… and is your rearguard'. (52:12) They will be answerable to G-d only, as He declares: 'You are my People'. (51:16)
The content of the Haftara focuses on the Redemption. However, it does not enthuse exclusively on the new and wholly fulfilling life in Zion, but it spares words to describe the manner in which the Israelites should leave their places of residence in the Diaspora:
Go out! Go out! Leave that place! Don't touch anything unclean! Leave her midst! Keep pure, you that carry G-d's vessels. For you will not leave in haste, nor will you depart in flight… (52:11-12)
Yes they should leave, but, as related above, in a dignified manner. They should remember that they 'carry G-d's vessels' - which Ibn Ezra states is a metaphor for the Torah - and its values. They should not 'leave in haste' as refugees, but as 'My People' - a people that chose Him, and a people that He chose (c.f. Ex. 19:6,8). That includes making due preparations in advance (Radak), as becoming of a privileged people.
The Israelites are told to 'Keep pure', and not to 'touch anything unclean'. Ibn Ezra understands that as keeping one's distance from the other nations - which in modern terms may well mean distancing oneself from the negative aspects of the cultures and values of those countries. However, this passage could be explained with reference to the Parasha, which deals with international relations in the passage below:
When you come near to a city to wage war against it, you shall make overtures for peace. If it responds in kind… then the entire people shall… serve you. (Only) if it does not make peace with you… G-d shall deliver it in your hand… (Deut 20:10-13)
The commentators understand the above as follows. According to Rashi, the Israelites only had to offer peace with nations other than the Seven Canaanite ones, whom they were to utterly destroy (20:17) - understood to mean whether they were to make peace or not. The Ramban, however, understands the Torah's injunction to make peace rather than war to include even the Canaanite nations (with total rather than partial annihilation to follow if they refused), so long as they paid taxes, served the Israelites, and accepted the Seven Noachite Laws. These were morally very high standards from the conqueror to the conquered, by the standards of the contemporary period and geographical region.
Common to the situation of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land (following the Ramban), and the return from Exile are the following. Firstly, the Israelites, as G-d's people, will be a leading power and not a subject people. Secondly, as carriers of 'G-d's vessels', they have to relate to others in a becoming way - and that means striving for peace through dignity and example, rather than as cringing subjects at the mercy of other nations and the exigencies of world politics. Thirdly, they must initially put past grievances behind them (such as Edom's inhospitality - Num. 20:21), and in the future, the numerous more recent parallels of medieval and modern history. They must not wallow in them, as one 'drunk, without wine'. (51:21)
Thus, as the Chosen People, the Israelites must characterize their future golden era with conduct befitting of those who 'carry G-d's vessels'. They must not abuse their newly found power to settle the scores of their blood-spattered history, unless subsequent developments give them no choice. But they should practice grace and generosity of spirit in promoting and maintaining good relations with the world's peoples and nations, in keeping with Isaiah's earlier prophecy of the destiny of the Israelite nation:
'Is it too little for you to be My servant, and to re-establish the tribes of Jacob and return the descendants of Israel? I will make you a light to the nations, so My salvation will reach the ends of the earth'. (49:6)
For the seed of the idea of the D'var Torah, I referred to Jacobs J., A Haftara Companion (1998), p. 224.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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