Haftarah for Simchat Torah—Joshua: Strong and Resolute

October 19, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Vezot Habrakhah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Joshua, Rosh Hashanah | Leave a comment
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The standard cycle of Torah readings ends with Moses’ death in the last Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Vezot Habrakhah. On the holy day of Simchat Torah, most Jewish congregations read this last portion in a Torah scroll, then roll the scroll all the way back and read the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. The accompanying haftarah (reading from the Prophets) is Joshua 1:1-18.

Have you ever tried to turn over a new leaf, and found that without a systematic process you soon slide back to your old ways?

One process for changing your life can be found in the Jewish holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. I realized this year that these days are a recipe for a 23-day period of transformation.

Blowing the Shofar, from Minhagim, 1707

Blowing the Shofar,
from Minhagim, 1707

1) On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”), we declare the beginning of a new year. And we wake up when we hear the blast of the shofar, a loud wind instrument made out of a ram’s horn.

2) On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), having apologized to the people we have wronged and forgiven those who wronged us, we go on to confess our errors to God and forgive ourselves.

3) During the seven days of Sukkot (“Huts”), we eat, sleep, and study (as much as the weather permits) in temporary shelters whose roofs of branches let in some rain and starlight.  The new lives we are creating for ourselves are like these sukkot: fragile, not secure—but open to nature, to other people, and to the presence of the divine.

Hoshana Rabbah, by Bernard Picart c. 1733

Hoshana Rabbah,
by Bernard Picart c. 1733

4) On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah (“Great Supplication”), we circle the sanctuary seven times while beating willow branches on the floor to symbolically disperse the last traces of the previous year’s misdeeds.

5) On Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Gathering”), we pray for rain so that the new seeds we have planted will grow during the winter.

6) On Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in Torah”), we read the end of the Torah scroll (the last portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, called Vezot Habrakhah, “And this is the blessing”). Then we roll it back to the beginning and read about the creation of the world in Genesis/Bereishit. In this way we acknowledge the blessings of the old year, close the book on our past mistakes, and launch into creating our new life.

The haftarah for Simchat Torah is the beginning of the book of Joshua, right after Moses has died. Everything must change now. Joshua, who has spent 40 years as Moses’ attendant, must quickly become the de facto king of the Israelites. The Israelites, who have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, complaining about the food, learning the rules of their new religion from Moses, and listening to the old folks’ stories about being slaves in Egypt, must now become first a conquering army, then a people who farm, trade, and live in towns—in the unfamiliar land of Canaan.

Moses Appoints Joshua, by Henry Northrop, 1894

Moses Appoints Joshua,
by Henry Northrop, 1894

Both Joshua and the Israelites are unprepared for their new lives.

Moses anticipates this toward the end of Deuteronomy. He legitimizes Joshua as his successor by laying hands on him, and God confirms it with a pillar of cloud. Then Moses tells the Israelites:

Chizku and imetzu! Do not be afraid and do not feel dread in front of them [the Canaanites], because God, your God, is going with you Itself. It will not let go of you and It will not forsake you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:6)

chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural) Hold strong! Hold on! Be fortified! Be stalwart! Be strong!

imetzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural) Be resolute! Be firm! Be strong!

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him, in the sight of all Israel: Chazak and ematz, because you yourself shall bring this people to the land that God swore to their fathers to give to them, and you yourself shall apportion it among them. (Deuteronomy 31:7)

chazak (חֲזָק) = (singular of chizku) Hold strong! (etc.)

ematz (אֱמָץ) = (singular of imetzu) Be resolute! (etc.)

After Moses dies, Joshua may have felt like running run away, but he accepts his new life. The book of Joshua begins with God speaking to Joshua.

It happened after the death of Moses, the servant of God; God spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant, saying: My servant Moses is dead. So now get up and cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the children of Israel. (Joshua 1:1-2)

Joshua says nothing, but I imagine him feeling fearful and doomed. He served as a general once, 40 years ago, when Amalek attacked the Israelites; but the untrained ex-slaves won the battle only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven. Joshua has never led a war of conquest or administered a country. When he was one of the scouts Moses sent to report on the land of Canaan, he could not even persuade anyone that the land was worth entering. How can he persuade the Israelites to cross the Jordan and enter it now? And how can he turn himself into a conqueror, judge, and administrator?

God tells him:

No one shall be able to stand against you, all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let go of you and I will not forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)

I expect it would help to know that God was on your side.  When I embark on a new phase of my life, it helps to know that I am doing the right thing. But that knowledge by itself is not enough to make me step forward.

God continues:

Chazak and ematz, because you shall apportion among this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give to them. Only chazak and ematz very much to guard and do according to all the teaching that My servant Moses commanded to you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you shall act with insight everywhere you go. … Did I not command you: chazak and ematz? You shall not be afraid and you shall not be dismayed, because God, your God, will be with you wherever you go.  (Joshua 1:6-7, 9)

Joshua proceeds to become the leader he never was before. He makes decisions based on the teachings of Moses, he conquers large parts of Canaan (with the help of two divine miracles), and he divides up the land among the tribes of Israel.

Chazak and ematz, he probably reminds himself; hold strong and be resolute! The Bible uses this particular pairing of words only at four times of major change: when Joshua replaces Moses as the leader of the Israelites (in Deuteronomy and Joshua), when Joshua encourages his officers to continue the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), when Solomon replaces David as the king of Israel (in the first book of Chronicles), and when King Hezekiah encourages his people to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians (in the second book of Chronicles).

In all four transitions, the people who were told to be resolute felt nervous and insecure. And all four times they succeeded in their new roles.


It takes a lot to turn over a new leaf, to embark on a new direction in your life. From the Jewish holy days at this time of year we learn to wake up, face what we did wrong, make amends, and let go; to live for a while in the insecure space of transition as we stay open to guidance and pray for growth; to acknowledge the blessings in our old lives before we begin creating our new lives; and, in this week’s haftarah, to proceed with an attitude that will keep us going on our new path. We must trust that we are doing God’s will or the right thing, and we must be determined to keep going regardless of anything frightening or discouraging along the way.

Chazak and ematz; hold strong and be resolute. Keep going.

Haftarot for Yom Kippur and Ha-azinu—Isaiah, Jonah, & 2 Samuel: Atonement

October 11, 2016 at 1:33 am | Posted in Acharey Mot, Isaiah 2, Jonah, Psalms/Tehilim, Samuel 2, Yom Kippur | 2 Comments
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In this season of Jewish holy days, we once again have three haftarot (readings from the Prophets) in one week.  On Yom Kippur we read Isaiah 57:14-58:14 and the whole book of Jonah.  Then on Saturday we read 2 Samuel 22:1-51, the haftarah for Ha-azinu, the second to last Torah portion in Deuteronomy.

The English word “atone” was first used in the 16th century as a contraction of “at one”. Atonement is the process of making amends for wrongdoing in order to restore unity—especially unity with God.

In Biblical Hebrew, the word for atonement is kippurim (כִּפֻּרִים). It comes from the verb kipper (כִּפֶּר), which means cover, appease, make amends, reconcile.

goat-for-azazelThe first Torah reading on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a selection from the Torah portion Acharey Mot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. The portion describes an annual ritual of atonement in which the high priest places lots on two goats. He sacrifices one goat to reunite the sanctuary with God, and places the sins of the Israelites on the head of the other goat before sending it off into the wilderness. (See my post Metzorah & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)

Today on Yom Kippur, Jews read this Torah portion about the ancient technology for atonement, but we also confess misdeeds, beg for forgiveness, and pray for atonement with the divine.

All three haftarot this week assume that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—but if those who have been wicked repent and make amends, God welcomes them back.

First Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Isaiah 57:14-58:14

In this passage from second Isaiah, God promises to revive and heal the humble, but:

There is no shalom, said my God, for the wicked. (Isaiah 57:21)

shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, safety, ease, well-being.

I believe this is true even without an all-seeing god who directly interferes in the lives of individuals. Everyone who acts immorally eventually suffers because most of the humans around them come to distrust and reject them.

People who have a moral sense and know they are doing wrong also suffer from nagging uneasiness. They can distract themselves and/or go into denial, but peaceful well-being is not an option for them. They cannot become “at one” with the still, small voice within themselves.

The haftarah from Isaiah goes on to say that fasting and bowing, sackcloth and ashes—the 6th-century B.C.E. formula for Yom Kippur—are useless for atonement unless one also frees the oppressed, feeds the hungry, shelters the poor, clothes the naked, and refrains from violence and evil speech. The way to be heard by God is to do good for your fellow human beings.

            That is when you will call and God will answer;

            You will cry for help and [God] will say: Here I am. (Isaiah 58:9)

Good deeds create atonement.

Second Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Jonah
Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

When the prophet Jonah finally submits to doing the mission God gave him, he walks into Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyria, oppressor of the Israelites, and calls out:

“Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the men of Nineveh believed in God, and they proclaimed a fast and they put on sackcloth, from the great to the small. And the word was told to the king of Nineveh, and he rose from his throne and he took off his robe and he put on sackcloth and he sat on the ashes. (Jonah 3:5-6)

The king issues a proclamation that all the human residents, and even the livestock, must fast, wear sackcloth, cry out to God, and repent of doing violence.

And God saw what they did, that they turned away from the evil path; and God had a change of heart about the bad thing [God] spoke about doing to them, and [God] did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)

God forgives the whole Assyrian capitol city of Nineveh even before its people do any good deeds.  It is enough for them to admit their bad behavior and sincerely intend to reform.

Repentance creates atonement.

Third Haftarah: Reading from 2 Samuel for Saturday

The haftarah for the Torah portion Ha-azinu is read on either the Saturday before Yom Kippur or the Saturday afterward, depending on that year’s Hebrew calendar.  This year it comes after Yom Kippur.

This haftarah is a psalm attributed to King David, looking back on his life. (The long poem reappears with only a few minor word changes as Psalm 18.) Most commentary praises David for attributing all his narrow escapes and military successes to God rather than to his own cleverness.

Yet after praising and thanking God for rescuing him from his enemies, David explains:

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me.

            God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me.

            Ki I have kept the ways of God,

            And I have not done evil before my God.

            Ki all His laws are in front of me

            And from His decrees I do not swerve.

            And I am without blame or blemish for Him,

            And I have kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22:20-24)

ki (כִּי) = because, when, if.

How can David describe himself as a paragon? Earlier in the second book of Samuel, he clearly violates two of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)

Bathsheba with a letter from King David, by Rembrandt

Bathsheba, by Rembrandt

Earlier in the second book of Samuel, David sees a beautiful woman bathing, and finds out that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who is one of David’s soldiers. Nevertheless, he summons her to his palace and lies down with her.

When she informs the king that she is pregnant, he sends a message to the battlefront for Uriah to come back to Jerusalem. King David urges Uriah to go home and spend the night with his wife.  But Uriah insists on sleeping with the king’s officers, so David cannot claim he got his own wife pregnant.

David sends Uriah back to the front with a letter for his general, Joab, instructing him to place Uriah in the most dangerous part of the battlefield, then fall back so Uriah will be killed.  General Joab carries out the king’s orders.

As soon as Bathsheba has finished the mourning period for Uriah, King David takes her as his eighth wife. But he has already committed both adultery and murder. The prophet Nathan tells David a parable illustrating why his actions were despicable, and informs him that God said:

Why then did you hold the word of God in contempt, doing what is evil in My eyes? (2 Samuel 12:9)

God then states the consequences: “the sword will not swerve from your household”, and someone from David’s household will lie with the king’s women.

And David said to Nathan: “I did wrong before God.”  Then Nathan said to David: “God will even let your wrongdoing pass; you will not die.  Nevertheless …the son, the one [about to be] born to you, he will die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

So how can David say, in this Saturday’s haftarah: “I have not done evil before my God” and “From His decrees I do not swerve”?

Maybe David is living in a narcissist’s fantasy world, guilty of grandiosity and denial. Yet he did admit wrongdoing when Nathan pointed it out to him. Maybe David believed that God only rescues people who are perfectly good, so David painted himself that way.

But I think David knows he did wrong in the eyes of God when he took Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed. His confession saved his own life, but he was thoroughly punished.  Bathsheba’s first son sickened and died soon after birth. Later, one of David’s older sons, Absalom, killed his half-brother Amnon, overthrew his father, and lay with his father’s concubines. In the ensuing war between father and son, Absalom was killed despite David’s orders to spare his life.

By the time King David writes the psalm comprising this Saturday’s haftarah, he probably considers that God had punished him enough for his heinous crimes, and his slate has been wiped clean. Since those terrible times, his behavior has been righteous.

When David says:

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me. (2 Samuel 22:20)

he might mean that God rescues him when God is pleased with him, not because. And when David writes:

God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me. (2 Samuel 22:21)

he might mean that when he is righteous and keeps his hands clean, God rewards him, but when he fails to do the right things, God makes him suffer. He knows that God’s response varies according to his behavior, and that he was not always such a paragon. Realizing this, David says,

            I became without blame or blemish for Him,

            And I kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22: 24)

According to this reading, David’s message is that a human being can change. We suffer when we do evil, but we still have the ability to keep ourselves from doing wrong again.  We can still become good and righteous, without blame or blemish.

The two haftarot we read on Yom Kippur show that both good deeds and repentance create atonement with God. The haftarah for Ha-azinu this Saturday shows that even a murderer can repent and change himself into a righteous human being.  The conscientious effort to return to the right path and stay on it creates atonement.

May we all be blessed with the ability to return to oneness with God, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat Shuvah—1 Samuel & Hosea:  From Smoke to Words

October 6, 2016 at 11:36 am | Posted in Chukkat, Hosea, Rosh Hashanah, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment
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Almost every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.

Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.  The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20.  And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.

Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.

first-temple-altarPrayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.

Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.

Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes!  Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)

Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray!  (Probably from the same root as pilleil  = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)

Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.

Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.

Temple altar

Temple altar

Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect.  This corresponds to prayers of praise.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged).  Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.

(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)

A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it.  Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.

The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer.  King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife.  God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease.  Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)

After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.

Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes.  But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake.  On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the

Channah praying from etching by Marc Chagall

Channah praying
from etching by
Marc Chagall

temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.

And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life…  (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.

God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)

…and they bowed down there to God.  Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:

            My heart rejoices in God…

            There is no holy one like God,

            Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.

This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:

            Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,

            For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.

            Take devarim with you

            And shuvu to God.

            Say to [God]:

            May You forgive all wrongdoing

            And take the good.

            And we will make amends of the bulls

            Of our lips.  (Hosea 14:2-3)

Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)

shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) =  Return! (plural, addressing the people)

devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.

Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.


As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.

A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact.  But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.

Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God.  Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.

It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.


Haftarah for Nitzavim—Isaiah: Dressed Up

September 28, 2016 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Nitzavim | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) and the haftarah is Isaiah 61:10-63:9).

The final haftarah before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is the last of the seven weeks of consolation.  The reading from second Isaiah begins:

            I truly rejoice in God;

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation:

            [God] wrapped me in a meiyl of tzedakah

            Like a bridegroom, priest-like in a glorious turban,

            And like a bride adorned with her jewelry. (Isaiah 61:10)

meiyl (מְעִיל) = formal robe worn over other garments, wrapped and tied with a sash.  (Plural:  meiylim.)

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = righteousness, right behavior, justice.

This passage is narrated by the prophet, but it implies that God is dressing every Israelite living in exile in Babylon with the same amazing garments.

Second Isaiah rejoiced because after more than 50 years of exile, the Israelites in Babylon were free. The Persian king Cyrus finished conquering the Babylonian Empire and decreed in 535 B.C.E. that all foreign populations were now free to return to their old homelands and rebuild their own temples. According to second Isaiah (45:1), God anointed King Cyrus as God’s agent in order to liberate the Israelites.

The poet expresses this liberation in terms of clothing.  God dresses the Israelites in new garments, clothing associated with priesthood and weddings.

Garments of the high priest

Garments of
the high priest

The word meiyl appears 28 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first ten times it refers to a robe worn exclusively by the high priest.

They shall make the garments of Aaron to sanctify him to serve as a priest to Me. And these are the garments they shall make: a breast-piece and an oracular-apron and a meiyl and a checkered tunic and a turban and a sash… (Exodus/Shemot 28:3-4)

The purpose of the unique costumes worn by the priests is to make the men holy so they can serve in the sanctuary.  In this case, the clothes do make the man.  The high priest, beginning with Aaron, wears additional garments, including a meiyl over his long tunic. The high priest’s meiyl is a long rectangle of woven fabric with a nicely finished neck-hole in the middle.  It is dyed completely blue, and it has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates around the bottom hem. (For more details, see my posts Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing, and Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.)

In the first five books of the Bible, only the high priest wears a meiylAfter that, a meiyl is the prophet Samuel’s signature garment from childhood to death and beyond. When he is a boy serving as an attendant at the temple in Shiloh,

…his mother made for him a little meiyl, and she brought it up for him every year when she went up with her husband to slaughter the animal sacrifice. (1 Samuel 2:19)

Samuel continues to wear a meiyl as Israel’s chief prophet and judge. After Samuel is dead, King Saul asks the witch of En-Dor to summon his ghost.

And he said to her: What do you see?  And she said: An old man rising up, and he, he is wrapped in a meiylThen Saul knew that he was Samuel… (1 Samuel 28:14)

Although the highest service is to God, the Bible also shows rulers dedicated to serving their nations wearing meiylimKing Saul, King David, the princes of the Phoenician city-states in the book of Ezekiel, and Ezra—the first informal ruler of Jerusalem when the exiles began to rebuild.

The children of rulers might also wear meiylimKing Saul’s son Jonathan removes his meiyl and gives it to David as a pledge of love.  Once David is the king, he dresses his daughters in meiylim.

The only people in the Bible who wear meiylim even though they are neither rulers nor prophets nor priests appear in the book of Job.  Job tears his meiyl in grief when he hears that all his children are dead, and Job’s three friends tear their meiylim when they first see him sitting in the garbage dump, covered with boils.  Here the meiyl seems to be merely a garment indicating the status of prominent citizens.

Four of the meiylim in the Bible are imaginary; the image of a robe reinforces the idea of being wrapped in something.  A meiyl is used in a metaphor for being wrapped in tzedakah in Job 29:14, and for being wrapped in shame in Psalm 109:29.  God wraps Itself in a meiyl of zeal in Isaiah 59:17.  And in this week’s haftarah, God wraps the prophet and every exiled Israelite ina meiyl of tzedakah”.

Perhaps men wore meiylim to their weddings in Biblical times, but the Bible does not say.  Brides and bridegrooms did wear their most beautiful clothes and jewelry, and the haftarah compares the bridegroom’s turban to the turban of a priest. The haftarah goes on to say that the rebuilt Jerusalem will  “marry” God, and the returning Israelites will “marry” Jerusalem.  It is appropriate, then, for God to dress the new Jerusalemites as if they were priests serving God.

The divine act of wrapping the Israelites in meiylim of tzedakah also explains a statement at the end of last week’s haftarah, in which God tells Jerusalem:

            And your people, all of them tzaddikim,

            Forever they will possess the land…(Isaiah 60:21)

tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִים) = persons who are innocent, morally in the right, righteous, just. (From the same root as tzedakah.)

How could all of the people be, or become, tzaddikim? The answer in this week’s haftarah is that God is wrapping them in tzedakah by wiping the slate clean and granting everyone a fresh start, in which they are innocent and dedicated to righteous service, dressed by God in the meiyl of a high priest, a king, a bridegroom.


Thus in the seventh and final haftarah of consolation, God is viewed as a being who grants the Israelites total forgiveness for their past misdeeds, and lovingly wraps them in robes that consecrate them and transform them into perfectly good people.

We all drag behind us the memories of our own misdeeds. Some of us strive to become better people, serving the good and staying on the right side of morality and God. What a blessing it would be for a supernatural being to grant us complete absolution and a fresh start as a human with naturally good instincts and desires!

Yet just as the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem soon began committing new misdeeds, we, too, would stray from the right path. Our new meiylim would fade into a memory, and we would once again face the human condition, in which we are constantly given opportunities to choose our own behavior.

But after all, it is greater to choose to do the right thing than to do it unintentionally. And it is greater to do tzedakah because we have consciously developed good habits than to do it because we have no free will.

Then we can say, with second Isaiah:

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation.

Haftarah for Ki Tavo–Isaiah: A Place for Feet

September 23, 2016 at 10:11 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 60:1-22).
by Michelangelo

by Michelangelo

A popular image of God is of an old man with a beard, floating in the sky and stretching out his hand like the God that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. But the Hebrew Bible never mentions a beard in connection with God.  “By the hand of God” appears all over the Bible, but it is simply an idiom for “through the agency of God”.  Sometimes a deed is accomplished by the hand of a human being, sometimes by the hand of God.

In the Bible, the most common anthropomorphic image of God is of someone enveloped in robes, sitting on a throne. The face is too bright to be seen, and the hands are not mentioned. But sometimes the feet are.

The feet of God appear in this week’s haftarah, where second Isaiah encourages the exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem.  God tells Jerusalem that someday the other nations, from Sheba to the Phoenician cities of Lebanon, will bring tribute to her.

            The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you,

            All its juniper, fir, and cypress,

            To glorify the place of My holy site;

            And the place of My raglayim I will honor.  (Isaiah 60:13)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet. (From regel, רֶגֶל = foot. Regalim, רְגָלִים = feet (more than two); times, occasions.)

The Babylonian army had burned the First Temple to the ground when it captured Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon in 589-587 B.C.E.  But in 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon and decreed that all of its foreign populations were free to return to their former homes and worship their own gods. Some of the exiled Israelites were skeptical about going.  So in this week’s haftarah, God promises that once the Israelites build a new temple in Jerusalem, God will honor it as the place of the divine presence. Second Isaiah refers to God’s presence in terms of both God’s light and God’s raglayim.

The most stunning appearance of God’s feet is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when 74 people climb halfway up Mount Sinai.

Then they went up, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel.  And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his raglayim it was like a making of bricks of sapir and like an image of the sky for purity.  (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-10)

sapir (סַפִּיר) = a blue precious stone. (From the same root as safar (סָפַר) = counted up, and seifer (סֵפֶר) = scroll, document, book.)

Do the 74 Israelites actually see human-shaped feet against the bright blue sky?  Is it a shared vision in a dream state?  Or do they see something indescribable, which Exodus tries to capture with the metaphors of feet (suggestive of footsteps), sapir (suggestive of writing) and sky (which is also the word for heavens)?

Baal Preparing Thunder & Lightning

Baal Preparing
Thunder and Lightning

Four other references to God’s feet are based on descriptions of Baal the storm-god in other Canaanite religions. For example:

            And He bent down the sky and descended,

            And a thick fog was beneath his raglayim.  (Psalm 18:10)

Did the original poets who invented these descriptions believe that Baal actually had feet and stood on the clouds, or were they simply writing poetry?  What about the poets who applied those descriptions to the God of Israel?

The Bible does use raglayim for several idioms involving human beings. When a man’s foot slips or stumbles, it means he is straying from the path of righteousness. Raglayim also appears as a euphemism for genitals, and even urination. In another biblical idiom, when person A bows at the raglayim of person B, it means A submits to B’s authority.  An example occurs in this week’s haftarah immediately after the verse about God’s feet.

            And they will walk to you bowing,

            The children of your oppressors.

            And they will bow down at the soles of your raglayim,

            Everyone who used to scorn you.

            And they will call you City of God,

            Zion, Holy of Israel.  (Isaiah 60:14)

Pharaoh Tutankhamun's throne and footstool

Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s throne and footstool


People bow down to the ground to honor God throughout the Hebrew Bible, but they never bow to God’s feet. They do, however, bow down to God’s footstool in the Psalms.

            Let us enter His sanctuary.

            Let us bow down to His hadom-raglayim.

            Arise, God, to your resting-place,

            You and the ark of Your power!  (Psalm 132:7-8)

hadom-raglayim (הֲדֺם־רַגְלַיִם) = the stool for a pair of feet; footstool. (Used in the Bible only five times, always in reference to God).

In Psalms, Lamentations, and 2 Chronicles, God’s footstool is either the ark or the whole First Temple in Jerusalem. But in second Isaiah, the idea of God’s footstool expands along with the idea of God:

Thus said Hashem:

            The heavens are My throne

            And the earth is My hadom-raglayim.

            Where is this house that you will build for Me?

            Where is this place, my resting-place?

            All these were made by My hand,

            So all these came into being

                        —declares God.  (Isaiah 66:1-2)


This week’s haftarah is the sixth of seven readings from second Isaiah called the seven haftarot of consolation. Each one gives us a different view of God, either by shaking up one of the traditional beliefs about a local, anthropomorphic God or by expanding on the concept of a single abstract God for the whole universe.

How can we interpret the line “And the place of My raglayim I will honor” in this haftarah?

God is addressing Jerusalem—but not the ruined houses and broken stones of the old city in the hills of Judah.  God is really addressing the people of Jerusalem, the exiles who feel ruined and broken in Babylon. Now they have a chance to go home and rebuild. Now the people can make themselves into a holy footstool, a hadom-raglayim, for God.

Then will they see God’s feet over their heads?  No. In the rest of this week’s haftarah second Isaiah describes God’s presence in terms of light, not body parts.  The haftarah begins:  Arise, shine, for your light has come.  (See my earlier post, Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.)

After God promises to honor the temple as if God’s feet rested there, the haftarah says:

            God will be for you an everlasting light;

            And your God will be your splendor.  (Isaiah 60:19)

The presence of God is more like light than like a robed figure with feet.  And if you make yourselves a holy community, the light of God will shine through you.

Haftarah for Ki Teitzei—Isaiah: Owners and Redeemers

September 13, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-10).

            For a little while I abandoned you,

            But with great compassion I will gather you in. (Isaiah 54:7)

This week’s haftarah is a poem in which the husband is God, and the wife is the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.

I discussed the portrayal of God as a defective husband in my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, so this week I will focus on a verse in which the poet, second Isaiah, tells the Israelites they will no longer experience public disgrace—

            Because your be-alim is your Maker;

                        “God of Tzevaot” is His name.

            And your go-eil is the Holy One of Israel;

                        “God of all the earth” He will be called. (Isaiah 54:5)

be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = plural of ba-al (בַּעַל) = owner, husband, lord, master; or a god in other Canaanite religions. (A noun related to the verb ba-al (בָּעַל) = possess, rule over, take into possession as a wife.)

tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies. (“Sabaoth” in older English translations.)

go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = (singular) redeemer, ransomer, avenger.


The word ba-al in this context does not mean a Canaanite god, but rather lord or husband. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Hosea introduced the idea of God as Israel’s husband, and it became a popular prophetic motif in the Bible. Hosea uses two words for “husband”: ba-al and ish. God tells “his” straying wife (the Israelites) that when she returns to him,

            You will call Me “my ish”,

            And no longer will you call Me “my ba-al”. (Hosea 2:18)  

sketch by Rembrandt

sketch by Rembrandt

ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband, person, someone.

The term ish puts the husband and wife on friendly and equal footing. The term ba-al makes the husband the wife’s owner and ruler.

This week’s haftarah uses the plural of majesty, calling God be-alim. The plural of majesty is appropriate for the kind of husband who owns and rules over his wife, a ba-al rather than an ish.

When second Isaiah then calls God “your Maker” (osayikh(עֺשַׂיִךְ)—also a plural of majesty), the prophet may be implying that God owns them because “he” created them in the first place.


Next comes the name “God of Armies”, commonly translated as “Lord of Hosts”. The Bible uses the word tzevaot both for the armies of nations at war, and for the constellations of stars in the sky—considered as formations of God’s angelic servants. God has ultimate power over the success or failure of all armies. The time when God rejects “his wife” in the haftarah corresponds to the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E., when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon, which they were not allowed to leave.

Second Isaiah was written around the end of the exile in 538 B.C.E., when the Persian army captured Babylon and its king, Cyrus, decreed general freedom of religion and movement. The prophet’s agenda was to encourage the Israelite exiles who had been assimilating in Babylon to return to their own religion and their own former home. By using the name “God of Armies”, second Isaiah might be saying, “Do not despair! Your husband, owner, and maker also has the power to replace the army that punished you with an army that will rescue you!”

(Another reason for including the name “God of tzevaot” might be to counter the Babylonian view of stars as gods, and remind the people that the God of Israel controls the stars.)


A go-eil in the Bible is the kinsman whose duty is help his close relatives in one of three ways. When an impoverished relative sells himself into slavery, the nearest kinsman who can afford it is the go-eil who must buy him back. When an impoverished relative sells a field, the go-eil buys back the land to keep it in the family, and lets his relative farm it. And when a judge orders the death of a relative’s murderer, the go-eil serves as the executioner.

The Israelites in exile are like slaves because they are unable to leave Babylon, the house of their master. And they are landless because the Babylonians now rule their own former kingdom of Judah.

When second Isaiah calls God the go-eil of the Israelites, it means that God will rescue them from their captivity in Babylon and return them to the land of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. But it also implies that God’s relationship to the Israelites is not only like that of a husband-owner, but also like that of a brother or uncle who is responsible for rescuing them.

This intimate view of God probably did comfort and inspire some of the Israelites in Babylon. I can imagine that other exiles would prefer either an abstract “God of all the earth”, or a friendlier sort of divine husband, an ish.

After all, when God’s wife and possession (the Israelites) did not obey him, her ba-al punished her by arranging for the Babylonian army to seize Jerusalem. Now, when God is in a better mood, he will be the ba-al who takes his wife back to rule over her again, and the go-eil who redeems her by executing her Babylonian enemies and arranging for the Persian army to seize Babylon. The Israelites are in the same position as the wife of a despot; they must meekly accept whatever God does, and be grateful when anything good comes their way.


Last week, in Haftarah for Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name, I wrote that each of the seven haftarot of consolation (the readings from second Isaiah during the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah) offers a different view of God. This is the fifth haftarah of consolation, and its view of God is open to several interpretations.

I think there is some truth in the idea that all human beings, not just the Israelites in Babylon, are like the wife of a despot who must meekly accept whatever our God does, and be grateful when anything good comes our way. After all, we can take actions that change our lives, but we cannot make our lives from scratch. “Whatever God does” could mean everything that is out of our hands, from the laws of physics to our genes and the world we were born into. If we do not accept reality, we doom ourselves to perpetual anger and misery.

But besides taking whatever actions we can to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, we can also be grateful for the good that happens to come our way. I am grateful I happened to meet my beloved husband. And on another level, I am grateful for the sight of marigolds in the sunlight outside my window.

But I am also ready to say “God of all the earth” instead of thinking of God as an autocratic family member!

Haftarah for Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name

September 6, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Shoftim | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) and the haftarah is Isaiah 51:12-52:12).
Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

The second “book” of Isaiah (written in the sixth century B.C.E. around the end of the Babylonian exile, two centuries after the first half of Isaiah) opens:

            Nachamu, nachamu My people!” (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחֲמוּ) = Comfort them! (From the same root as nicham (נִחָם) = having a change of heart; regretting, or being comforted.)

This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah begins:

             I, I am He who menacheim you. (Isaiah 51:12)

menacheim (מְנַחֵם) = is comforting.

At this point, many of the exiles in Babylon have given up on their old god and abandoned all hope of returning to Jerusalem. So second Isaiah repeatedly tries to reassure them and change their hearts; he or she uses a form of the root verb nicham eleven times.

In the Jewish calendar, this is the time of year when we, too, need comfort leading to a change of heart. So for the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av (the day of mourning for the fall of the temple in Jerusalem) and Rosh Hashanah (the celebration of the new year) we read seven haftarot of “consolation”, all from second Isaiah.

This year I notice that each of these seven haftarot not only urges the exiles to stick to their own religion and prepare to return to Jerusalem; it also coaxes them to consider different views of God.

The first week—

—in Haftarah for Ve-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling? we learned that once God desires to communicate comfort, the transmission of instructions to human prophets goes through divine “voices”, aspects of a God Who contains a variety ideas and purposes. When we feel persecuted, it may comfort us to remember that God is not single-mindedly out to get us, but is looking at a bigger picture.

The second week—

—in Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning? second Isaiah encourages the reluctant Jews in Babylon to think of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children, and of God as a rejected father. Instead of being told that God has compassion on us, we feel compassion for an anthropomorphic God. Feeling compassion for someone else can cause a change of heart in someone who is sunk in despair.

The third week—

—in Haftarah Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, we took a new look at what God would be like if God really were anthropomorphic. Like a slap in the face, this realization could radically change someone’s theological attitude.

The fourth week, this week—

—God not only declares Itself the one who comforts the exiled Israelites, but also announces a new divine name.

In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, “name” can also mean “reputation”. In this week’s haftarah, God mentions two earlier occasions when Israelites, the people God promised to protect, were nevertheless enslaved: when they were sojourning in Egypt, and when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria. Both occasions gave God a bad reputation—a bad name. And the Torah portrays a God who is very concerned about “his” reputation. For example, when God threatens to kill all the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf, Moses talks God out of it by asking:

What would the Egyptians say? “He was bad; He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to remove them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus/Shemot 32:12)

Now, God says, the Babylonians are the oppressors. They captured Jerusalem, razed God’s temple, deported all the leading families of Judah, and still refuse to let them leave Babylon.

            Their oppressors mock them—declares God—

            And constantly, all day, shemi is reviled. (Isaiah 52:5)

shemi (שְׁמִי) = my name.

The Babylonians are giving the God of Israel a bad name.

            Therefore My people shall know shemi,

            Therefore, on that day;

            Because I myself am the one, hamedabeir. Here I am! (Isaiah 52:5-6)

hamedabeir (הַמְדַבֵּר) = the one who is speaking, the one who speaks, the speaker. (From the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak)

Since God’s old name has been reviled, God promises that the Israelites will know God by a new name. Then God identifies Itself not merely as the speaker of this verse, but as “the one, The Speaker”, adding extra emphasis with “Here I am!”

The concept of God as Hamedabeir appears elsewhere in the Bible. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis/Bereishit (a chapter that modern scholars suspect was written during the Babylonian exile), God speaks the world into being. Whatever God says, happens.

Second Isaiah not only refers to God as the creator of everything, but emphasizes that what God speaks into being is permanent.

            Grass withers, flowers fall

            But the davar of our God stands forever! (Isaiah 40:8)

davar  (דָּבָר) = word, speech, thing, event. (Also from the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak.)

What is the davar of God regarding the exiles in Babylon? In this week’s haftarah second Isaiah says:

            Be untroubled! Sing out together

            Ruins of Jerusalem!

            For God nicham His people;

            He will redeem Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:9)

nicham (ִנִחַם) = had a change of heart about; comforted.

God let the Babylonians punish the Israelites because they were unjust and because they worshiped other gods. But now God has had a change of heart and wants to end the punishment and rescue the Israelites from Babylon. Since God’s name was reviled, some of the exiles do not believe God has the power to carry out this desire. So God names Itself Hamedabeir and then declares:

            Thus it is: My davar that issues from My mouth

            Does not return to me empty-handed,

            But performs my pleasure

            And succeeds in what I send it to do.

            For in celebration you shall leave,

            And in security you shall be led. (Isaiah 55:11-12)

The speech of Hamedabeir achieves exactly what God wants it to. In this case, God wants the Israelites in Babylon to return joyfully and safely to Jerusalem. If the exiles believe this information, their hearts will change and they will be filled with new hope.


It is easy to give up on God when life looks bleak, and you blame an anthropomorphic god for making it that way. No wonder many Israelite exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. adopted the Babylonian religion. No wonder many people today adopt the religion of atheism.

But there is an alternative: redefine God. Discover a name for God that changes your view of reality, and therefore changes your heart.

Thinking of God as Hamedabeir, The Speaker, takes me in a different direction from second Isaiah. Not being a physicist, I take it on faith that one reality consists of the movement of sub-atomic particles. But another reality is the world we perceive directly with our senses, the world of the davar—the thing and the event. We human beings cannot help dividing our world into things and events. We are also designed to label everything we experience. What we cannot name does not clearly exist for us. In our own way, we too are speakers.

What if God is the ur-speech that creates things out of the dance of sub-atomic particles—for us and creatures like us?

What if God, The Speaker, is the source of meaning? Maybe God is what speaks to all human beings, a transcendent inner voice which we seldom hear. When we do hear The Speaker say something new, we often misinterpret it. Yet sometimes inspiration shines through.

I am comforted by the idea of a Speaker who makes meaning, even if I do not understand it.


Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser

August 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Re-eih | 3 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Re-eih (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:11-55:5).

Hosea was the first prophet to compare the covenant between God and the Israelites to a marriage contract. Preaching in the 8th century B.C.E., Hosea calls the northern kingdom of Israel a prostitute who takes other lovers, i.e. worships other gods, until her own God decides to take action.

            And I will bring her to account

            Over the days of the Baals

            When she turned offerings into smoke for them

            And she adorned herself with her rings and ornaments

            And she went after her lovers

wedding cropped                         —and Me, she forgot… (Hosea 2:15)

The books of first and second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all employ Hosea’s metaphor of Israel (or the southern kingdom of Judah, or the city of Jerusalem) as God’s cherished wife who abandons her husband and commits adultery. In this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah (written circa 540-530 B.C.E., two centuries after the first half of the book of Isaiah), Jerusalem is once again compared to a wife, with God as her husband. But this time the story is different.

The haftarah begins with God promising to give Jerusalem jewelry.

             Wretched, stormy, she has not been comforted.

            Hey! I am setting down turquoise building-stones,

            And foundations of sapphires.

            And I will make her skylights of agate

            And her gates of fire-stone,

            And her whole enclosure of jewels. (Isaiah 54:11-12)

What interests me is the reason why God intends to shower Jerusalem with jewelry. Shortly before the opening of this week’s haftarah, second Isaiah declares:

            As a wife azuvah and troubled in spirit

            God has called to you:

            “Can one reject the wife of one’s youth?”

                        —said your God. (Isaiah 54:6)

azuvah (עֲזוּבָה) = forsaken, abandoned, left behind.

This prophetic passage never calls Jerusalem unfaithful, or at fault in any way as a wife. But it answers God’s rhetorical question by making it clear that God did, in fact, reject Jerusalem.

             For a little while azavtikh,

            But with a great rachamim I will gather you in.

            In a burst of anger I hid my face from you a while,

            But with everlasting loyalty


                           —said your redeemer, God. (Isaiah 54:7-8)

azavtikh (עֲזַבתִּיךְ) = I forsook you, I abandoned you.

rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, feeling of love, mercy.

richamtikh (רִחַמְתִּיךְ) = I will feel compassion and/or love for you.

In other words, God abandoned Jerusalem and opened the door for the Babylonian army to destroy her (see my post Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship). According to the book of Jeremiah, God did it because Jerusalem was unfaithful and worshiped other gods. But now, in second Isaiah, God has recovered from this particular fit of temper, and is carried away with a different emotion, a compassionate love for “his” wife.

An abusive husband who beats his wife to discharge his anger, and then feels a desire to reclaim her, usually promises her that he will never do it again. In this poetic passage, God continues:

             [Like] the waters of Noah this is to me!

            I swore that the waters of Noah would not cross

            Over the earth again.

            Thus I swear

            Against becoming angry over you and against rebuking you!

            For the mountains may give way

            And the hills may totter,

            But My loyalty to you shall never give way

            And the covenant of My peace shall never change!

                        —said merachameich, God.

merachameich (מְרַחֲמֵךְ) = your compassionate one, your one full of loving feelings.

After promising his wife he will never beat her again, what does the standard abusive husband do next? Give her jewelry, of course.

And so we step into this week’s haftarah, in which Jerusalem is wretched—in the sense of being miserable, and “stormy”—full conflicting feelings. And “she has not been comforted”—God’s declaration of everlasting love and promise never to hurt her again is not enough for her to forgive God and take “him” back.

So God promises to give Jerusalem turquoises and sapphires, agates and fire-stones, and jewels all around.

Perhaps even a lavish gift of jewelry is not enough for the battered wife this time, because God goes on in this haftarah to promise Jerusalem children who will all live in peace, and her own personal safety from oppression and ruin. God even goes so far as to say:

            Hey! Certainly no one will attack

            Without My consent.

            Whoever hurts you

             Will fall because of you. (Isaiah 54:15)

I wonder if the poet of second Isaiah was aware of the irony?

What does this thinly-disguised allegory of God as the abusive husband and Jerusalem as the battered wife mean?

In the patriarchal culture reflected in the Hebrew Bible, wives were not allowed to divorce their husbands. An actual battered wife had no recourse until Talmudic times. But members of one religion could convert to another.

Second Isaiah addresses the families that the Babylonian army deported from Jerusalem several decades before, when they razed the city. (See my post Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?)

Now the exiles are living comfortably enough in Babylon, and they hesitate to trust their old god, who let the Babylonian army destroy Jerusalem in the first place.

Yes, the Persian king Cyrus is rapidly taking over the Babylonian empire, and Cyrus has a policy of letting native populations return to their old homes and worship their old gods. But the exiles from Jerusalem are reluctant to go. Like a battered wife, they feel safer in the foreign city of Babylon than they do at home. They are tempted to abandon God for good and assimilate.

Second Isaiah was wise enough to recognize and acknowledge the deepest fear of these exiles who assumed that God was anthropomorphic, and God’s relationship with the Israelites was like a marriage. The exiles knew that the people of Jerusalem were guilty of adultery with other gods. But I bet that subconsciously they also suspected that the husband, God, had an anger management problem and had abused Jerusalem beyond bearing.

A later passage even states that the Israelites would not have strayed if only God had kept “his” temper:

             You attacked one who would gladly be righteous

            And remember You in Your ways.

            But You, You became angry, and so we offended. (Isaiah 64:4)

Throughout the Bible, the old, anthropomorphic God gets carried away by “his” temper. This God is also portrayed as one of many gods, each in charge of its own country or ethnic group, though the God of Israel is the most powerful. This the God who acts like an abusive husband to the Israelites.

Second Isaiah switches back and forth between the old, anthropomorphic God and a new idea of God as vast, remote, and singular. In this new concept, there is only one god, who creates and runs the entire universe.

Shortly after the end of this week’s haftarah, the poet reminds us that God is not really like a human being after all:

            My thoughts are not your thoughts,

            And your ways are not my ways

                        —declares God. (Isaiah 55:8)

Elsewhere, second Isaiah insists there are no other gods, as in this bold theological statement:

             I am God and there is no other.

            The shaper of light and creator of darkness,

            The maker of peace and the creator of evil:

            I, God, do all of these. (Isaiah 45:6-7)

Today the concept of God in second Isaiah is still at odds with the popular notion of an anthropomorphic God. While the exiles in Babylon may have feared that their God was temperamental and abusive—a characterization supported by numerous Biblical passages—many religious people today believe in an anthropomorphic God who loves each individual the way a parent loves a child. Then they have to explain why their parental God kills so many young and innocent children.

I think the Jews in Babylon were more realistic about what an anthropomorphic god means. And I think second Isaiah was inspired with a far more interesting idea of what God is.

Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?

August 24, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Eikev, Isaiah 2, Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and the haftarah is Isaiah 49:14-51:3).

            How can we sing a song of God

            On foreign soil?

            If I forget you, Jerusalem

            May I forget my right hand. (Psalm 137:4-5)



Psalm 137, like this week’s haftarah, is about the Babylonian Exile. In 586 B.C.E. the Babylonian army deported the last leading families of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. These Israelites were stuck in the capital of the Babylonian empire for 48 years, until Babylon surrendered to the Persian king Cyrus, who declared freedom of movement and freedom of religion in 538 B.C.E..

In Jewish history, which spans millennia, 48 years may not seem long.  But for individuals it was a long time to remember their old home and their old god—especially if they were born in Babylon, and had only their elders’ memories to go by.

            Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer? (Isaiah 50:2)

Usually when someone in the Hebrew Bible cries “Why have you forsaken me?” it is an Israelite addressing God. But in this week’s haftarah, God feels forsaken by the Israelites who have adjusted to life in Babylon.

In the second book of Isaiah, God is preparing to end the rule of the Babylonian empire, rescue the Israelite exiles, and return them to Jerusalem and their own land. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?) But it is no use unless the Israelites trust their God and want to go home.

map of BabylonImagine you were kidnapped and taken to a strange city. Your life there was comfortable, but you were not free to leave. Would you accept your new reality, adopt the customs and religion of the city, and make it your home?

That must have been the strategy of the Israelites that the Assyrian armies deported from Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, in 729-724 B.C.E.—because the Bible never mentions them again.

Or would you cling to your memories and your old religion, hoping that someday you would escape and go home?

This is the strategy that the second book of Isaiah advocates for the Israelites living in Babylon.

Reading between the lines, I imagine some Israelites moving past their trauma, falling in love with Babylonians, and assimilating. I imagine others stuck with post-traumatic stress disorder, trying hard not to remember their old lives or God or Jerusalem. And I imagine a few stubborn individuals clinging to the belief that their God was alive and well, and would someday rescue them and return them to their motherland.

But how could the believers convince their fellow Israelites to take heart and wait for God?

This week’s haftarah tries a new approach: Stop thinking about yourselves, and remember the parents you left behind!  How do they feel—your homeland, which is like a mother, and your God, who is like a father?

The haftarah begins with the land—called Zion for one of the hills in Jerusalem—crying that God has forsaken her, too.

And Zion says:

            God has abandoned me,

            And my lord has forgotten me! (Isaiah 49:14)

So far, Zion and God sound like lovers. But this is not another example of the prophetic poetry claiming that the people of Israel are straying after other gods like a wife who is unfaithful to her husband.  In this haftarah, the innocent land is Zion, and the people are Zion’s children. Zion lies in ruins after the war, empty and desolate because her destroyers (the Babylonians) stole all her children.

God reassures Zion by telling her:

            Hey! I will lift up My hand to nations

            And raise My banner to peoples,

            And they shall bring your sons on their bosoms

            And carry your daughters on their shoulders. (Isaiah 49:22)

In this poem God will arrange for foreigners (like King Cyrus) to return Zion’s children to Jerusalem. The poet or poets who wrote second Isaiah probably hoped that if discouraged exiles thought of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children and longing to have them back, their hearts might soften, and they might want to return to her.

Then, second Isaiah says, they would hear God ask:

           Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer?

            Is my hand short, too short for redemption?

            And is there no power in me to save? (Isaiah 50:2)

What if their god, their father, had not been defeated when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem? What if God really had planned the exile to punish them, as Jeremiah kept prophesying during the siege, but now the punishment was over and God missed the Israelites? What if their father, their god, really was powerful enough to rescue them and take them home to Zion?

If both parents, God and Zion, are yearning for them, then the Israelites in Babylon might start yearning for God and Zion again.


Decree by Cyrus

Decree by Cyrus allowing captives in Babylon to return to their native lands

It worked. After King Cyrus issued his decree, bands of Israelites from Babylon began returning to Jerusalem, a thousand or so at a time. Under Ezra and Nehemiah they built a new, larger temple for God. The former kingdom of Judah became a Persian province administered by Jews, and the expanded, monotheistic version of their religion, founded by second Isaiah, survived.

Today, two and a half millennia later, yearning for Jerusalem is built into Jewish daily liturgy. At the end of the Passover seder in the spring and Yom Kippur services in the autumn we even sing out: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Almost half of the Jews in the world today live in the United States. We are free to emigrate to the nation of Israel, as long as we meet Israel’s requirements. Only a few do so. Are religious American Jews still exiles?

Or has God become both the mother and the father we yearn for, while Jerusalem is now a pilgrimage site?

Haftarah for Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?

August 18, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Va-Etchannan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:1-26.

Deportation from Jerusalem

Deportation from Jerusalem

Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, razed its temple, and deported all its leading citizens to Babylonia in 597-596 B.C.E. Then each family in exile faced a decision.

Should they give up on their own religion, their own identity, and assimilate? Or should they have faith that their god had the power and the desire to eventually return them to their own land?

           Nachamu, nachamu My people!

            Says your god. (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחַמוּ) = Comfort! Reassure! (This imperative verb has the plural suffix u (וּ), meaning the speaker—God—is urging more than one person—or divine being—to reassure God’s people.)

This call for reassurance (and enlightenment) opens this week’s haftarah and what is really the second book of Isaiah.

(Isaiah 1-39, considered the first book of Isaiah, is set in the 8th century B.C.E., and warns that God will send an army against the people of Jerusalem if they do not reform. (See my post last week, Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.) The rest of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, is set in the 6th century B.C.E., near the end of the Babylonian exile and shortly before the Persian emperor Cyrus II took Babylon in 539 B.C.E. , This second book of Isaiah shares a new vision of God: that God is both the protector of the Israelites and the only god in the universe, powerful beyond imagining.)

The haftarah at the beginning of the second book of Isaiah promises that God has forgiven the exiles in Babylonia and will soon gather them home.

God continues:

            Speak (dabru) to the heart of Jerusalem

            And call out (kire-u) to her

            That she has worked off her debt,

            That her wrongdoing has been accepted,

            That she has received from the hand of God

            Double the amount of all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)

The Hebrew words for both “Speak!” and “Call out!” above also have the plural suffix u (וּ). But who is God addressing? As the poem continues, it seems that God is giving orders to two disembodied voices.

           Isaiah 40 3A kol is calling out:

           Clear (panu) in the wilderness

           A path for God!

           Level (yasheru) in the desert

           A highway for our god! (Isaiah 40:3)

kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound; speech.

            And the glory of God shall be revealed

            And all flesh shall see (ra-u) it together… (Isaiah 40:5)

Again, the verbs are in the plural, with the suffix u (וּ). The kol is not addressing a work crew; it seems to be urging multiple persons to open the minds of the Jerusalemites in Babylon, so they can experience God.

           …A[nother] kol says: Call out! (kera!)

           And he says: What shall I call out? (Isaiah 40:6)

The second kol uses the singular form, commanding one unidentified male person to call out. But “he” seems to be depressed about the transience of human life, and eight lines later, the kol recruits a second person:

            Climb up (aliy) on a high mountain,

            Mevaseret of Zion!

            Lift up (harimiy) your voice with strength,

            Mevaseret of Jerusalem!

            Lift up (harimiy), do not be afraid (tiyra-iy)!

            Say (imriy) to the cities of Judah:

            Here is your god! (Isaiah 40:9)

mevaseret (מְבַשֶֹּרֶת) = herald, bringer of news. (Mevaseret is the feminine form of mevaseir (מְבַשֵֹּר) = a (male) herald.)

The voice addresses the mevaseret using imperative verbs with a singular feminine suffix, iy (יִ), telling her to speak so as to lift the spirits and hopes of the Jewish exiles.

As Sheryl Noson-Blank points out in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, early commentators could not imagine the mevaseret as a woman; Targum Yonatan (~50 B.C.E.) translated mevaseret into Aramaic as plural male prophets, while David Kimchi (1160-1235 C.E.) decided the mevaseret was the land of Zion herself.

The second book of Isaiah never tells us the identity of the man or the woman recruited by the kol. Maybe they are the prophet-poets who wrote the book. Or maybe they represent all inspired men and women among the exiles in Babylon.

Nor does the book clarify what the two voices are. The first statement, that the people of Jerusalem have been sufficiently punished and should now be reassured that God will redeem them, is definitely attributed to God.

But how will God’s order be achieved? The first kol says all impediments to beholding God must be cleared away. The second kol says the news must be called out by heralds, man and woman.

What are these voices that interpret God’s original thought?


Some commentators view the voices as members of a divine council. In other religions of the ancient Near East, the gods assembled under the chairmanship of the chief god to discuss earthly affairs. The Hebrew Bible also mentions a divine council or assembly, whose members are variously described as:

           elohim (אֱלֺֹהִים) = gods; a god with various aspects; God.

           beney ha-elohim (בְּנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים) = offspring of the gods; offspring of God.

           kedoshim (ֹקְדֹשִׁים) = holy ones, holy places.

           ruchot (רוּחוֹת) = spirits, winds, motivating forces.

In Psalm 82 the members of God’s assembly are called simply elohim, gods.

           God takes a stand in the assembly of El,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

El is the high god in Canaanite mythology, equated with the God of Israel in this psalm.  God/El criticizes the elohim in God’s assembly for ignorantly favoring the wicked rather than the poor in their judgments, and decrees that henceforth these lesser gods will die like human beings.

Psalm 89 calls the members of the divine assembly beney elohim (“offspring of gods” or “offspring of God”) and kedoshim (“holy ones”), but they still appear to be lesser gods:

           Because who in the sky can measure up to God,

           Can compare to God, among beney elohim?

           El is greatly dreaded in the council of kedoshim

           And held in awe above everyone around Him. (Psalm 89:7-8)

In the book of Genesis, beney ha-elohim (offspring of “the gods” or God) resemble the gods in Greek myths.

The beney ha-elohim saw that the daughters of humankind were good, and they took wives for themselves from all that they chose. …when the beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of humankind, they bore children to them, heroes that were famous forever. (Genesis 6:2, 6:4)

Many scholars consider this fragment a piece of an ancient Canaanite text that was included in Genesis as a result of clumsy editing. However, the book of Job also refers to beney ha-elohim in its first two chapters.

One day the beney ha-elohim came to stand before God, and even the satan came among them. (Job 1:6)

satan (שָׂטָן) = accuser, adversary, one who feels animosity.

The satan persuades God to test Job to find out if he serves God only because he is fortunate, and God commissions this particular “offspring of the gods” to kill Job’s children and destroy his wealth. The heavenly council meets again, and the satan persuades God to commission him to afflict Job with diseases. Then most of the book is a long discussion of the problem of how God can be omnipotent and good, yet permit evil in the world.

Is the divine council of beney ha-elohim, including God’s satan, merely an engaging way of setting up the problem by using a Canaanite mythological theme? Or do the beney ha-elohim represent different aspects of the mind of God, like the different and sometimes conflicting inclinations in each human mind?

In the first book of Kings, the prophet Mikhayehu describes his vision of a divine council whose members appear to include stars, which are often called “the army of the heavens” in the Bible.

I saw God sitting on His throne, and all the army of the heavens was standing in attendance on Him to His right and to His left. And God said: “Who will fool Ahab so he will go up and fall at Ramot of Gilad?” And this one said thus, and this one said thus. Then the ruach went and stood before God and said: “I, I will fool him.” And God said to him: “How?”  And he said: “I will go and be a ruach of falsehood in the mouth of all his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:19-22)

ruach (רוּחַ) = spirit, wind, or motivating psychological force (singular of ruchot).

One or more ruchot are also at the council meeting, advising God. Just as God commissions the satan to carry out his suggestion about testing Job, in the first book of Kings God commissions the ruach to carry out his suggestion for bringing down Ahab. Elsewhere in the Bible, God sends a ruach elohim (a spirit of God) or a ruach hakodesh (a holy spirit) to individuals to overwhelm them with a mood or inspire them to become prophets. Here, the ruach that volunteers to makes Ahab’s prophets speak falsehoods is an aspect of God.


Back to this week’s haftarah in second Isaiah. I think the “voices” that respond to God’s initial order to nachamu, nachamu the people of Israel are like a divine council—but it is a council consisting of different aspects of one God. As God considers how to reassure the exiled Israelites, ideas arise, each with its own kol or voice.

The unnamed man and the mevaseret hear these divine voices inside their own heads, and they must respond.

Perhaps their response is the second book of Isaiah.

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