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The Nation (Israel) I formed for Myself, that they may declare My praise (Isaiah 43:21).
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 the section commencing with 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. This section of Isaiah 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 he 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.
Different time contexts are given for the text of the Haftara, and the above explanation would fit in with Ibn Ezra. The Prophet is addressing the people towards the end of their enforced exile in Babylon after the fall of the First Temple - when the whole system of Temple offerings was no longer in practice. G-d did not impose heavy offerings on Israel, and thus they had fewer duties. But they still did not come any closer to Him; they still did not call upon His Name. In the absence of sacrifices they should have focused their minds and hearts to the true service of G-d and acted in the spirit of the times when the Israelites came close to G-d through the rites of Temple offerings.
Rashi, however, relates the Haftara to an earlier period - understanding that the Prophet was rebuking Israel for acting in the deed, rather than just in the spirit, of bringing offerings to idols rather than to the Almighty. The Radak states that the Book of Isaiah is referring to an early period in Isaiah's career - namely when King Ahaz closed off the entrances to the Temple and instead set up altars to idols. That would be around 730 BCE - in the First Temple Period, just before the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Common to both contexts is the notion that - whether before or during Exile - Israel did not fulfill its role in the Creation: as a people 'formed by G-d, that they might declare His Praise' in thought and deed. The Prophet grieves that Israel did not live up to its position within the Creation. G-d once again promises that those who heed Him will be blessed, just as He nourishes the thirsty land. He ridicules those who their trust in metal and wood - in idols made by the very same artisans that worship them. He illustrates by telling of the fool who cuts down a tree, uses half of it as fuel so he can get warm by the fire and roast his meal - and use the rest to carve an idol that he believes has the power to save him.
Thus the Prophet calls on the people to find their allotted destiny at the pinnacle of the Creation - within the greatness and supremacy of G-d. In spite of past iniquities, G-d will give them a clean slate - He will forgive them and redeem them.
The Haftara implies a very clear set of priorities within Torah teaching. Temple offerings are deemed to be important - the Prophet castigates the Jews for applying the emotions and energies designated by G-d for His worship to paganism instead. However, he did not select the full restoration of the Temple offerings as the emblem of the ideal, positively reformed society. His vision was total repentance: 'Return to Me, for I have redeemed you' (44:22). That was in the same spirit of Samuel's rebuke to Saul: 'Does G-d desire burnt offerings and peace offerings as much as the obeying of His voice?' (Samuel I 15:22) Indeed, Amos stressed in the name of G-d the worthlessness of offerings when they were not part of moral, G-d-fearing society: 'If you offer Me burnt offerings or your meal offerings, I will not accept them! I will pay no heed to your gifts of fattened cattle! Spare Me the sounds of your hymns, and let me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice rise up as water and righteousness like an unfailing stream.' (Amos 5:22-24)
This true position of offerings is framed within the human need. Parashat Vayikra shows how individual offerings are expressions of gratitude, or a desire to put things right after past misconduct. However the Torah stresses that 'If his means do not suffice for a sheep, he shall bring… two turtle-doves or two pigeons… and if this means do not suffice for two turtle-doves or two pigeons, he shall bring as his offering… a tenth of an ephah of choice flour.' (Lev. 5:7-10) As the Talmud puts it - whether he brings much or whether he brings little, what counts is that he directs his heart to Heaven (Menachot 110a).
These ideas may be illustrated by the following story:
A member of a small Beth Hamidrash was shown around a magnificent large 'modern' synagogue in pre-war Berlin. The proud warden of that beautiful edifice put particular emphasis on the exquisite, splendid Holy Ark with its many Torah scrolls clothed in majestic silver ornaments. To the warden's great consternation, the visitor was not impressed. When asked for his reasons, the guest told him the following story: Two sisters got married, one to a very wealthy husband, and the other to a poor man, and they lived in different towns. When they met, years later, the poor sister looked very happy, whilst the poor one was sad. "Why are you so unhappy?" asked the poor sister? She received a surprising reply. "My husband treats me like a piece of furniture. He decorates me with fashionable clothes to act as a hostess at his home and his parties, but he does not pay any attention to my opinions. Your husband may not have money to give you, but he regards you like a queen. Every word you say is his command…"
"In your palatial synagogue the Scrolls of the Torah may have beautiful mantles and decorations, but your congregants do not take notice of their Divine content in their daily lives. They violate every precept. Only the lions of top of your Holy Ark keep the Ten Commandments! In our Beth Hamidrash, the Sifrei Torah may not have silver ornaments, but their Divine teachings are being practiced, studied, and honored very diligently by our members every single day. Judge for yourself: is the Torah not much happier in these simple surroundings?" (R. Chaim Wilschanski: For the Shabbat Table (1999) pp. 103-4)
This discussion brings us to an opening comment of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch on the Haftara: 'You have not brought for Me the young sheep of your burnt offerings.' Hirsch understands the verse as follows. G-d, unlike the idols does not need our offerings. He can manage quite well without donations in animals, grain, wine, oil, or incense. The prophet is criticizing the people for thinking they are showing Him some special favor in making the sacrifice to bring the offering. No - the purpose is not for G-d, but for Man - it is a means to come close to G-d: which cannot be done unless they are accompanied by full commitment to serve G-d though all His precepts - between Man and G-d, and between Man and Man.
By extension, the same idea applies to prayer. As the Talmud (Avot 2) states, a person should be meticulous in prayer, and not regard it as something as a fixed duty: G-d does not need our prayer, but we need as an opportunity of 'signing on' with Him thrice or more daily, committing ourselves to observe His will, and placing our needs before Him. This it should not be a fixed activity, but a privilege to come close to Him.
That is what should underlie our prayers for redemption and Temple restoration - that He should grant us the means to come closer and experience Him more fully…
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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