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Rosh Chodesh Shevat falls this year on Shabbat.
G-d says: "The Heavens are My throne, and the Earth is My footstool. What house can you build for Me? What site can be My resting place?" (Isaiah 66:1)
This Haftara is the last chapter of the very lengthy 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 scene of the middle section of Isaiah is some 150 years later - relating to the end of the Babylonian exile. The text 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 to physically and spiritually rebuild a much-devastated Holy Land. The last eleven chapters of the Book - culminating in the text of the Haftara - relate to the final redemption and the final 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. That last theme is the topic of the Haftara.
The theme of the Haftara is summed up in the first verse: "Heaven is My throne and the Earth is my footstool. Where could you build a house for Me?" (66:1). The world needs G-d, but He does not need the Temple - at least not run by such an establishment that "did what was… regarded as evil, and chose to do as… (G-d) did not wish." (66:4). So there will be conflict between those who 'tremble at the words of the L-rd' on one side, and those who do not accept them' on the other. In the final judgment, G-d will deal with those who rebel against Him - His enemies at it were - 'with fire and the sword' (66:16-17). Following the apocalypse, in the end, all nations shall recognize him. They will come up with the remnants of Israel 'to Jerusalem, My holy mountain'. (66:20) There will be a new world order when, in every month and on every Sabbath, all mankind will come to worship G-d. As they leave, they will also see terrible reminders of what happens to those who had broken with Him - such was Isaiah's vision, and that was his final communication recorded.
The greatness of his prophecy was that although Isaiah lived around the period of the fall of the Northern Kingdom (722 BCE), he received and communicated the word of G-d pertaining to events far into the future - including the period of Cyrus (from 539 BCE), to the Final Redemption. Indeed, comparing the text of this Haftara with that of the second chapter of the same book shows a remarkable unity. For the last four verses of the Haftara focus on:
Those themes powerfully parallel the opening themes of the Book of Isaiah as recorded in Chapter 2:
Many people will say: "Let us go up to the mountain of G-d" (2:3).
Nations shall no longer lift up the sword against nations, nor any more learn the art of war (2:4).
G-d will judge the nations and rebuke many people (2:4).
As stated in the previous section, the theme of the Haftara is summed up in the first verse: "Heaven is My throne and the Earth is my footstool. Where could you build a house for Me?" (66:1). The world needs G-d, but He does not need the Temple - at least not one run by such an establishment that "did what was… regarded as evil, and chose to do as… (G-d) did not wish." (66:4).
Indeed, King Solomon expressed a similar thought at the dedication of the First Temple: "Will G-d really dwell on Earth? Why, even the highest heavens cannot contain You, let alone this Temple which I have built." (Kings I 8:27)
Yet G-d answers His question in the same paragraph: "I will look to the man who is contrite and humble in spirit, who fears My word." Indeed, G-d does not need Man to make Him a home, but He wants Man to make his own heart a home for Him. As Jeremiah said in the name of G-d: "For I did not speak to your ancestors or command them about burnt offerings and sacrifices when I took them out of the land of Egypt. Rather, I commanded them "Obey Me, and I will be your G-d and you will be My people. Carefully follow the path I have commanded you, so things will go well for you." (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
The main theme of the Haftara is the division of the Israelites into two camps - those who fear His word and those who ignore it and carry on as they wish, regardless. Those who formerly mourned for Jerusalem will see that city flourish. The wicked who do not fear Him will perish in such a way their fate will be a constant reminder to all others of the ultimate fate of those who rebel against Him.
Yet Temple worship is mixed into this finale of the triumph of good over evil. 'One who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man. One who offers a lamb is one who breaks a dog's neck. One who offers a meal offering is like one who presents a gift of iniquity.' (66:3) Why does the prophet specifically associate people following certain Temple practices as characteristic of those unworthy of being able to play a positive part in the Final Redemption? Why does he not select the morally deficient - such as those to whom gossip, theft, and deceit are a way of life?
The answer may be found in looking at a comment from the Rashi on the above verse. 'One who slaughters an ox and kills a man, one who offers a lamb and breaks the neck of the dog… presents a gift of iniquity,' is a metaphor for a person who makes an offering whilst sinning. Thus he believes that he, personally, may behave as he wishes, so long as he does his duty by supporting the Temple.
The implication is that the Prophet is declaring that those who deliberately follow a form of surrogate Judaism are classed with the wicked. They believe that the priests have to be supported as they are observant on behalf of the community. Once they have been 'paid off' - in the form of offerings, they have done their duty. They are then free to carry on as they wish.
The Haftara text emphasizes that such a belief is a grave fallacy. It stresses that the final judgment will see the Israelites divided into two camps - those who fear His word (and that is at the personal, individual level), and those who do not. The latter include those who follow surrogate Torah as a matter of personal policy.
This idea may be applied to Jewish communities. People may belong to synagogues, but without following the lifestyle they stand for. They feel that by paying their subscriptions and attending every now and again, they have done their duty. If that is their honest belief - that the Rabbi and synagogue are observant on their behalf, and that is what they have paid for, their behavior is analogous to the person who brings an offering to the Temple, but has no desire to improve his conduct in the future.
It follows that those who belong to the camp of those who 'fear the word of G-d' include people whom, even if they sin on occasion, express true regret and try to avoid the same mistake. Applied to the above, they perhaps decide - and carry out, the resolution to spend Shabbat afternoon at a good shiur and go to the football on Tuesday evening instead…
For the historical background, I referred to Rosenberg S.G.: The Haftara Cycle (2000), pp. 217-221.
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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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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