Tags: haftarah, Prophet Jeremiah, redeemer
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 Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 32:6-27.
Prophets during the period of the kingdoms of Israel (931-722 B.C.E.) and Judah (931-586 B.C.E.) had more than one way to deliver God’s messages. They could preach to the king or to the people, in either poetry or prose. They could do performance art, acting out a message with props. Or they could do an apparently ordinary action that carried a symbolic meaning about God and country.
Jeremiah’s ordinary deed in this week’s haftarah, purchasing a field in his hometown from his cousin, carries a double meaning.
The grounds for the purchase are laid out in this week’s Torah portion, Behar:
If your kinsman becomes poor and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)
go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.
ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider, deliver from the hands of an enemy.
In other words, land must be kept within the extended family if possible. (And if not, God’s law requires that every 50 years will be a yovel or jubilee and all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.) If someone needs to sell land, the nearest kinsman has the first right to buy it. If no kinsmen step forward to buy the land, and it is sold outside the clan, then when a kinsman has the means he is expected to step forward and buy it back. He does not have to return the land to the original seller (at least not until the next yovel year); the important point is to keep the land in the family.
These laws about land ownership would have seemed moot while Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian army in 588-586 B.C.E. From all the accounts in the Bible, it became increasingly obvious that the Babylonians would win, and King Nebuchadnezzar would annex the whole kingdom of Judah to his own empire. Then his administration would decide who owned the land; the old property rights of the Israelites in Judah would be irrelevant.
Jeremiah spends most of the siege in prison in Jerusalem. The prophet keeps saying that rebelling against Babylon is futile, and the king of Judah should surrender before the city falls to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. This is not a popular message with either King Zedekiah of Judah or his officials, especially since Jeremiah speaks in God’s name. Since Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah, the late High Priest, people are likely to believe him. So the prophet is thrown in prison at least three times in the book of Jeremiah.
While Jeremiah is in prison at the beginning of this week’s haftarah, God tells him:
Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)
ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)
And Chanameil, the son of my uncle, came to me, as God had spoken, to the court of the guards. And he said to me: Buy, please, my field that is in Anatot, which is in the land of Benjamin, because the right of possession is yours and the ge-ulah is yours. Then I knew it was indeed the word of God. And I bought the field away from Chanameil, the son of my uncle, that was in Anatot. And I weighed out for him the silver, seven shekels and ten in silver. And I wrote in a document, and I sealed it and I designated witnesses… (Jeremiah 32:8-10)
Jeremiah describes all the details of the transaction, showing that it was done according to the letter of the law. Then God adds an instruction.
Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: Take these documents with this document of purchase, the sealed one and this uncovered one, and put them in a jar of pottery so that they will last a long time. For thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: They will buy houses and fields and vineyards in this land again. (Jeremiah 32:14-15)
Preserving the documents of sale in a pottery jar indicates that after a long time, the Israelites will return and own their land again.
Then Jeremiah asks why God told him to redeem land in Judah when the kingdom was about to fall to the Babylonians anyway.
And the word of God happened to Jeremiah, saying: Hey! I am God, the god of all flesh. Is anything too wondrous for me? (Jeremiah 32:26-27)
God then declares that Jerusalem will be burned to the ground as part of God’s plan to use the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their idolatry. But eventually God will bring the Israelites back to their land. In other words, God will be the go-eil for the Israelites.
Thus Jeremiah’s purchase of his cousin’s land prefigures God’s redemption of the Israelites.
At first I wondered if Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil was merely acting out of divine inspiration to set up the symbolic story by asking Jeremiah to be his go-eil. But then I read another episode in the book of Jeremiah, a few chapters later, when the Babylonian (Kasdim) army temporarily lifts the siege.
And it happened that the Kasdim removed the front-line troops around Jerusalem on account of the [advancing] front-line troops of Pharaoh. And Jeremiah was going out of Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin to apportion land there among the people. And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: You are defecting to the Kasdim! (Jeremiah 37:11-13)
Jeremiah winds up in prison again. But it is striking that his first idea, when the siege is temporarily lifted, is to walk back to his hometown, Anatot in the territory of Benjamin, and make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he prepared.
I suspect Chanameil really was poor, and needed the price of his land in silver to survive. By selling the land to his first cousin Jeremiah, he could use the silver and still continue to farm the land—as best he could during the siege of Jerusalem a few miles to the north.
When there is a break in the siege, Jeremiah tries to go south to check up on his cousin and make sure no outsider has kicked his cousin off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah. Even though he knows that the Babylonians will soon return, Jeremiah acts in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar. He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him.
Jeremiah knows his world is falling apart. He knows the siege will resume in a few months, Jerusalem will burn to the ground, and the whole kingdom of Judah will fall to its enemies. Yet he risks his own limited freedom in an attempt to make sure his cousin is all right—knowing that both he and his cousin are likely to be killed or deported later that year.
The sale of the land in Anatot is a symbolic act God uses to tell people that although they are doomed, there is hope for the next generation. And the sale is a practical step Jeremiah takes to help someone in the present.
Whether the doom we see advancing on the world is war or global warming, may we all be like Jeremiah and remember that each individual and each day counts. Stage your symbolic protests for the sake of the big picture. But be responsible and kind to another human, right here, right now.
Tags: haftarah, holiness, holy place, kohanim, Prophet Ezekiel, Temple in Jerusalem, vestments
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 Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) and the haftarah is Ezekiel 44:15-31.
Gold gleaming, censers swinging, men chanting, priests in elaborate robes and headgear … When I saw a special Catholic mass on television, I assumed that the officiants dressed up to impress the congregation with the beauty and holiness of their ritual.
I used to assume the same thing about priests in ancient Jerusalem when they performed rituals in the outer courtyard of the temple, in front of all the people. These outdoor rituals included butchering animals and burning the pieces on the altar; I pity whoever had to do the priests’ laundry. Nevertheless, their costumes seemed designed to impress the congregation, from the turbans on their heads down to the hems of their long elaborately woven robes.
And for the sons of Aaron you shall make tunics and you shall make sashes for them, and turbans you shall make for them, for magnificence and beauty. (Exodus/Shemot 28:40)
The priests had to look dazzling, I figured, in order to inspire the people into a worshipful state of mind.
This week’s haftarah turned my head around.
The book of Ezekiel records the visions and prophecies of a priest who was deported to Babylon in 593 B.C.E., when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem. While Ezekiel was in Babylon, the temple in Jerusalem was razed. Ezekiel encouraged his fellow Israelite exiles by prophesying a future temple in Jerusalem, bigger and better.
In this temple, he said, only the descendants of Tzadok, King Solomon’s high priest, would be priests. (See Haftarah for Emor: Tzadok the Priest.) They would follow strict rules of purity in their marriages, their behavior, and their dress.
When they come inside the gates of the penimit court, they must dress in garments of linen; they shall not dress themselves in wool for their attendance inside the gates of the penimit court and its house. (Ezekiel 44:17)
penimit (ַפְּנִימִית) = inner (part of a temple or palace). (From the noun panim = face, faces, surface, expression, disposition. The inner court was where one encountered the disposition of God or of a monarch.)
And when they go out to the outer court, to the outer court to the people, they must take off their garments that are on them and set them aside in the holy rooms, and they must dress in other garments, and not make the people holy with their garments. (Ezekiel 44:19)
According to Ezekiel, the holiest priestly garments must be worn in the penimit court, which only priests may enter. Thus only other priests—and God—could see them in their sacred vestments performing the rituals of the oil lamps, the bread table(s), and the incense altar.
Since the inner court is such a holy place, the garments worn there are also holy. The priests have to change into other garments before they go out into the public courtyard in order to prevent cross-contamination.
Commentators differ on the direction of the contamination. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 C.E.) wrote that ordinary garments are not ritually pure, and therefore would contaminate any holy garments they touched. But according to Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235 C.E.), Ezekiel was concerned that the holiness of the priests would rub off on the unqualified.
The holy linen garments include headgear and underpants as well as a long tunic and sash.
Turbans of linen will be on their heads and breeches of linen will be on their hips; lo yacheggeru in sweat. (Ezekiel 44:18)
lo yacheggeru (לֹא יַחְגְּרוּ) = they shall not gird themselves, they shall not wrap a belt or sash around their waists.
Girding happens most often in the Bible when men gird on swords or other weapons. A close second is girding oneself with sackcloth as a sign of mourning or repentance; in this case, a man wraps a broad sash of coarse goat hair around his naked midsection. In other references, men gird their loins in order to shorten the skirts of their tunics so they can run or march without encumbrance.
In this week’s haftarah, a priest’s linen sash girds his long linen tunic simply because men wore sashes. In the outer courtyard, a priest’s sash might help to hold his tunic away from spattering blood, or he might shorten his skirts with it to facilitate moving the ashes off the altar. But in the penimit court, the sash is strictly for beauty and propriety.
So are the linen breeches. Linen is cooler than wool; a man wearing linen is less likely to sweat. Today, sweat stains are considered unattractive and inappropriate on formal wear; copious perspiration is associated with either hard labor or excessive nervousness.
The Hebrew Bible refers to sweat only twice: in the sentence from Ezekiel above, and once in the book of Genesis when God sentences Adam to his new life outside Eden, and declares:
By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread… (Genesis/Bereishit 3:19)
Here, sweat is a metaphor for hard labor in the fields. But the work of the priests hidden inside the inner court is stately and spiritual. For this holy service, they need refined and holy clothing—not for the sake of onlookers, but for the sake of their own state of mind.
According to Ezekiel, the priests in the penimit court will be in an altered state. They will wear special clothes that are never worn anywhere else. They will not sweat. And they will not put on a show for the general public.
A second Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem, with construction beginning in 516 B.C.E. It did not follow Ezekiel’s plans, though it still separated the inner and outer courts. It was staffed by priests from the Levite tribe, but they were not all Tzadokites. They wore linen tunics, sashes, turbans, and breeches, though their sashes and the hems of their long tunics were embroidered with colored yarn that might have been wool.
There is no record of whether the priests of the second temple sweated inside the inner court.
After Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., priests could no longer perform the sacred rituals. But a new form of serving God was already developing. For the last two millennia, Jews have emphasized worshiping God through good deeds and the prayers of every individual. In that sense, we have become a kingdom of priests (and priestesses), as God predicted to Moses in Exodus/Shemot 19:6.
What can we do today to make our prayers and our good deeds like magnificent and beautiful garments we wear without sweating, in a pure and priestly state of mind?
Tags: chosen people, haftarah, monotheism, prophet Amos, torah portion
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 Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) and the haftarah is Amos 9:7-15.
Because God chose to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites owe God their fealty and obedience. This idea appears throughout the Hebrew Bible and Jewish liturgy, including this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy”):
I myself am God, your god, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. And you must observe all my decrees and all my laws and do them; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:36)
And you shall be holy to me, because I, God, am holy, and I separated you from the other peoples to be mine. (Leviticus 20:26)
Other peoples have their own gods. But the god that chose the Israelites as its own people is superior to all those other gods, according to the early books of the Torah. The miracles God made in Egypt prove it.
The book of Deuteronomy, which was probably written in the mid-seventh century B.C.E., offers the Bible’s first definite statement of monotheism, the belief that there is only one god in the whole universe.
God is “the gods” in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:39)
In this book the Israelites become the chosen people of the one and only god.
For you are a sacred people for God, your god, and God chose you to be Its am segulah out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
am segulah (עַם סְגֻלָּה) = a people (am) of personal possession (segulah); personally chosen people.
Yet a hundred years earlier the prophet Amos had already hinted at monotheism with his claim that the same God is in charge of all the nations on earth. Amos was the first prophet to declare that God punishes wrong-doers in every country, not just the two kingdoms of the Israelites.
The book of Amos begins with dire prophecies of the downfall of every small country in the region: Aram and its capital, Damascus; the four city-states of the Philistines, from Gaza to Ekron; the Phoenician city-state of Tyre; the kingdoms of Edom, Ammon, and Moab; the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah; and the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel.
Amos says God will decree their destruction because of their various misdeeds. He does not mention the rising Assyrian Empire, which had already begun conquering or subjugating the small states to its west. But most prophets assumed that God used foreign armies to punish people. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
In the last chapter, this week’s haftarah, Amos questions the whole idea that God and the Israelites have a special relationship.
“Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
“And the Philistines from Crete,
“And Aram from Kyr?
Hey! The eyes of my master, God
Are on the sinful kingdom.
“And I will wipe it off from the face of the earth.
“However, I will certainly not wipe out the house of Jacob”
—declares God. (Amos 9:7-8)
Kushiyim (כֻשִׁיִּים) = Kushites, black-skinned people, people from Kush (a region identified with Ethiopia). Elsewhere the Bible treats Kushites like other foreigners from distant lands, countries with which Israel and Judah had no quarrel.
So what if God brought the Israelites out of Egypt? God also brought other peoples to new lands. In the book of Amos, God does not play favorites. In fact, Amos predicts that God is about to wipe out the northern kingdom of Israel—though some Israelites (a.k.a. the house of Jacob) will survive, and someday their descendants will return.
(The Assyrians did capture the capital of Israel, Samaria, in 720 B.C.E., and deported much of its population. Some northern Israelites fled south to the kingdom of Judah, which also considered itself part of the house of Jacob. Judah survived as a semi-independent vassal state of Assyria until the empire was conquered by the Babylonians around 610 B.C.E.)
It is tempting to read this week’s haftarah as an early statement of universalism: “Everyone is special, everyone is chosen in a different way.” At least Amos, unlike many other books in the Hebrew Bible, avoids triumphalism: “Only we are special, only we are chosen.” But I suspect Amos’s real point is: “Who do you think you are? You’re not so special!”
Nevertheless, the book of Amos is a good antidote to the common late biblical view that there is only one god, and God singled out the Israelites to be Its personal possession.
Today, nobody follows the religion of the ancient Israelites, with its animal sacrifices and its laws about the sub-human status of slaves, women, children, and innocent bystanders in war. The Jewish religion has become much more ethical than the Israelite religion portrayed in the Torah.
Yet many people today, Jews and non-Jews, believe that their own religion is the only right one, the only true religion—and therefore they and their co-religionists are God’s chosen people.
I pray that we all receive the divine inspiration Amos received, and realize that God is not like a biased parent or teacher, singling out one child for extra benefits. God rescues lots of people and brings them to new lands. In God’s eyes, Israelites are the same as Kushiyim.
None of us are chosen ahead of time. We must make our own choices to become holy people.
Tags: abomination, haftarah, incest, Leviticus, propeht Ezekiel, torah portion
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 Acharey Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30) and the most common haftarah is Ezekiel 22:1-19.
The Torah frowns on some actions because they are ra (רַע) = bad or immoral; some because they are tamei (טָמֵא) = not pure for religious purposes; and some because they are to-eivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = abominable, disgusting, offensive. This week’s Torah portion and haftarah reveal two different views of what should be to-eivah to the god of Israel.
The authors of both Leviticus and Ezekiel knew that societies in the ancient Near East had different opinions on what was abominable. The first two books of the Bible, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, use the word to-eivah only to describe what the Egyptians abhor: eating at the same table with Canaanites (Genesis 43:32), and the slaughter of sheep (Genesis 26:34, Exodus 8:22).
This week’s portion in Leviticus/Vayikra declares that some of the practices that Canaanites permit are off-limits to Israelites.
You must keep My decrees and My rules, and you must not do any of these to-eivot, [neither] the native-born nor the resident alien among you. Because the men who were on the land before you did all these to-eivot, and they made the land tamei. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:26-27)
to-eivot (תּוֹעֵוֹת) = plural of to-eivah.
The passage leading up to this statement lists 17 acts that are both tamei and to-eivot for Israelite men: twelve kinds of sex involving relatives, sex with a menstruating woman, sex with your comrade’s wife, giving your child to the god Molekh, sex with another male, and sex with a beast.
Two of these acts are labelled tamei within the list, perhaps to emphasize that they cause religion impurity: sex with a comrade’s wife and sex with a beast. Another act is specifically labeled to-eivah:
And you must not lie down with a male as in lying down with a woman; it is to-eivah. (Leviticus 18:22)
The book of Leviticus might have emphasized that this homosexual act was to-eivah for the ancient Israelites because it was accepted as normal among other peoples in the region, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Philistines. These societies had laws against specific deeds such as father-son incest and homosexual rape, but treated sex between consenting males (and even boys) as a normal part of life.
But for the priests who wrote Leviticus, all sex between males was as abominable as raping your mother or giving your child to the foreign god Molekh.
The prophet Ezekiel was a priest deported to Babylon when Jerusalem fell, and he shared some of the opinions of the priests who wrote the book of Leviticus. But he took a broader view of what was to-eivah to the god of Israel. The haftarah from the book of Ezekiel denounces the residents of Jerusalem for recklessly committing deeds that are to-eivah. God asks Ezekiel:
And you, son of humankind, will you judge, will you judge the city of bloodshed and inform her of all her to-eivot? (Ezekiel 22:2)
Then God tells Ezekiel what to say. The first eight to-eivot God says the citizens of Jerusalem have committed are: making idols, belittling their own parents, practicing extortion on resident aliens, oppressing widows and orphans, despising God’s holy things, profaning the sabbath, speaking slander, and eating sacrifices on mountaintops (where there were altars to other gods).
Next God mentions a few of the sex acts men are also forbidden to do in this week’s Torah portion: sex with their fathers’ wives, with menstruating women, with their comrades’ wives, with their daughters-in-law, and with their own sisters. Neither sex with other males nor sex with beasts is mentioned in this haftarah.
In the haftarah it is sex with another man’s wife that is explicitly labeled to-eivah.
And a man does a to-eivah with the wife of his comrade, and another man makes his daughter-in-law outrageously tamei, and another man rapes his sister, his father’s daughter. (Ezekiel 22:11)
The list is wrapped up with three more non-sexual to-eivot: taking bribes, charging extra interest, and damaging friends through extortion.
Ezekiel’s point may be that we should feel the same knee-jerk, visceral disgust that we feel in the face of incest and rape when we see our fellow citizens worship other gods or injure people through extortion, slander, and perversion of justice.
Can we change our gut reactions? Yes, over time. When I had my first period it seemed like an abomination, but eventually I accepted menstruation as a mere nuisance. On the other hand, when I was very young it did not bother me at all to trade my little sister a penny for a dime. After a few years I developed enough empathy so that the idea of deliberately cheating anyone seemed repulsive.
The Bible is right that we must pay attention and choose what is truly to-eivah to our god. But we can do better than the priests who wrote Leviticus. Modern commentators suggest that the incest rules in that book were designed to protect girls and women from the men living in the same household compound. Today we take the idea of protection farther by considering all acts of rape and all sex with children as to-eivah.
On the other hand, more and more of us smile when we see two men fall in love and go home together. I believe that today many people are more kind and fair than the Israelite authorities were 2,500 years ago.
Yet alas, too many individuals today still deserve Ezekiel’s denunciations in this week’s haftarah. Human beings cannot all have perfect empathy. But what if we all had a gut reaction to slander, bribery, and extortion, finding these deeds to-eivot? How would the world change?
Tags: haftarah, Passover, Peaceable Kingdom, Pesach, world peace
(Note: I will be traveling during the week of Passover, so I’m publishing my post for April 24-30 ahead of time. This year, the eight days of Passover end on April 30, 2016.)
For the eighth day of Passover/Pesach, the special Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, which includes directions for observing Passover “so that you will remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life”. (See last week’s post, Pesach: The Matzah of Misery.)
The haftarah (the accompanying reading from the Prophets) is Isaiah 10:32-12:6. It mentions Egypt only in Isaiah’s prediction that God will return the Israelites from the far-flung places where they were deported by Assyrian Empire.
God will dry up the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and will wave a hand over the River [Euphrates] with the might of God’s ruach and break it into seven wadis so it can be walked over dry-shod. And it will become a highway for the remainder of God’s people who remained from Assyria, like [the highway] for Israel on the day it went up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:15-16)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind (when blowing over water); spirit (when sweeping into a human being).
But the return of the exiled Israelites is only part of Isaiah’s grand vision in this week’s haftarah.
The prophet has been urging King Achaz of Judah to avoid taking sides in the revolt of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel against the empire of Assyria, which had conquered the two states during the 8th century B.C.E. Isaiah tells the king of Judah that Aram, Israel, and even Assyria will all disappear in only a few years. God has a three-part plan. First God will eliminate the vast empire of Assyria; then a great and righteous king will arise in Judah; and finally people everywhere will unite in worshiping Judah’s God.
In the ancient Near East, people believed major change came from the top down: from god to king to the people. A great king was required for a civilization to be transformed. So Isaiah prophesies:
A shoot will go out from the stump of Jesse
And a crown from its root will bear fruit.
And a ruach of God will rest upon him,
A ruach of wisdom and insight,
A ruach of counsel and courage,
A ruach of knowledge and awe of God. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
God will inspire a human king, a descendant of King David’s father Jesse, to establish a moral government. Then, Isaiah prophesies, human nature itself will change.
A wolf will dwell with a young ram,
And a leopard will lie down with a goat kid,
And a calf and a young lion will pasture together,
And a little boy will be leading them.
And a heifer and a she-bear will graze
And they will let their young ones lie down together.
And a lion, like an ox, will eat straw.
A baby will play over a viper’s hole,
And a toddler will put his hand over a snake’s lair. (Isaiah 11:6-8)
In other words, there will be no predators; all animals will be peaceful and non-violent. Judah and the other small countries in the hills of Canaan are like lambs, kids, calves, babies. But in the future, the wolves, leopards, lions, and bears of great empires will no longer prey on them.
Not only will all peoples live together in peace, but they will all be morally upright and search out the same god.
They will do no evil nor destruction
On all My holy mountain
Because the land will be as filled with seekers of God
As the water covering the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse will be standing
As a banner for peoples.
Nations will come to him with inquiries,
And his haven will be honored. (Isaiah 11: 9-10)
Isaiah claims that this great king from “the root of Jesse” will arise in just a few years—i.e. right after the reign of King Achaz. Achaz’s son Hezekiah was indeed one of the religious kings praised by the Bible. But after Hezekiah’s reign (~716-697 B.C.E.), people noticed that the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy was no closer to coming true; the empires of Assyria and Egypt continued to squabble over ownership of the lands between them until the Neo-Babylonian Empire became the new top predator.
We are still waiting for world peace. Christianity developed the theory that Isaiah’s righteous king was Jesus, who would return someday to straighten out the world. According to traditional Judaism, we are still waiting for the messiah—or at least for a messianic era without predators or prey.
According to the Torah, the Israelites in Egypt waited 400 years for an opportunity to escape and become a free people, serving only their god.
We have already waited over 2,400 years for Isaiah’s vision to come true. Maybe it’s time to stop praying to an all-powerful God who lives outside the world. Maybe it’s even time to stop waiting for a Moses, a king, a messiah. We need to take action ourselves.
Imagine one individual after another dedicating him-or-her-self to respecting everyone and preying on no one; to avoiding violence; and to seeking the divine in everyone and everything.
May all human beings become filled with the ruach of Isaiah’s inspiration.
Tags: Deuteronomy, Exodus, matzah, Passover, Pesach, torah portion
“This is the bread of affliction,” we intone during the Passover/Pesach ritual, holding up a piece of matzah. Many Jews feel that just eating this dry unleavened cracker is an affliction—especially if they eat it for the prescribed eight days and eschew real bread, or anything else made with yeast or other leavening.
At a traditional Passover seder, we hold up the matzah and say in Aramaic: Ha lachma anya di akhalu avhatana be-ara demitzrayim! which means: “The bread of misery that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt!” This phrase is based on one of the Torah portions we read during the week of Passover, Deuteronomy /Devarim 14:22-16:17.
You must not eat with [the meat from the animal sacrifice] anything leavened. Seven days you shall eat with it matzot, the bread of oni, because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt. Thus you shall remember the day of your going out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened flatbread made of flour and water only, quickly mixed and baked before any sourdough in the air can act on it.
oni (עֳנִי or עֹנִי) = misery, suffering, humiliation, plight, deprivation. (This noun comes from one of the four root verbs spelled ענה, this one meaning “to stoop down in humiliation, humility, or subjection”.)
The noun oni appears 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, although the passage above is the only one mentioning “bread of oni”. Individuals in the Bible experience oni, misery, because they are unloved, infertile, abused, or deprived of their due. The poor live in a state of oni because they are victimized by a selfish upper class. The Israelites live in oni because they have been conquered by enemy armies—or because they are abused slaves, as in the Passover story.
Why is matzah the bread of oni? The book of Exodus claims that the enslaved Hebrews had to hurry out of Egypt before the dough in their kneading-bowls had time to rise. I find this unconvincing. (See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.)
I think the oni, the misery, came first, and the matzah symbolizes it. Matzah, made out of flour and water paste with nothing interesting added, not even sourdough, serves to remind us of the tedious life of slaves making bricks for Pharaoh.
Matzah, the “bread of oni”, can also remind us of times in the Bible when people live in misery and God sees their oni, stops ignoring them, and acts to improve their situation. I counted 13 occurrences of this motif, as well as additional occasions when God acts after hearing people cry out in their oni.
For example, God tells Moses at the burning bush:
I certainly see the oni of my people who are in Egypt, and I have paid attention to their cry for help in the face of their being hard-pressed, for I know their anguish. … And I have said I will lift them out from the oni of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7, 3:17)
Sometimes people draw God’s attention to their own oni, hoping that God will then notice it, stop ignoring them, and act. For example, Channah suffers because she is infertile and verbally abused by her husband’s other wife, who has many children.
And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if you will really look at the oni of your female-servant, and you remember me and do not ignore me, and you give your female-servant a male child, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:11)
The psalms also include pleas to God to notice the singer’s misery and act. For example,
See my oni and my misfortune
And lift off all my wrongdoing. (Psalm 25:18)
May I sing out and may I rejoice in your kindness
Because you see my oni and you know the distress of my soul. (Psalm 31:8)
See my oni and save me
Because your teaching I have not ignored. (Psalm 119:153)
Maybe Jews began holding up matzah during the Passover ritual not just to remind themselves of times of deprivation, but also to draw God’s attention to their own oni. To make sure God gets the point, we call the matzah the “bread of oni”. If God sees our misery, pays attention to it, then maybe God will stop ignoring us and do something to improve our lives—the way God freed the slaves in Egypt.
What is your oni this year? What misery is enslaving you? Is it something that you can fix? Or something that will lift by itself?
Or is it something that you can only be freed from by a divine intervention? If so, what would a true divine intervention be?
Tags: 2 Kings, haftarah, ostracism, Samaria
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 Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 7:3-20.
Even when people belong to the same religious, ethnic, or national group, they can become marginalized or ostracized in their society. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra insists that anyone who develops a skin disease called tzara-at must be excluded from public worship and live apart from other people. Last week’s Torah portion (Tazria) declares:
All the days that the affliction is in him, he shall be ritually impure. Ritually impure, he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:46)
This skin disease is not always a permanent disfigurement; in fact, in last week’s haftarah, the Aramaean general Na-aman is cured of tzara-at. (See my post 2 Kings: A Religious Conversion.) This week’s Torah portion (Metzora) opens with the ritual for readmitting someone whose tzara-at has healed. But in this week’s haftarah, four men with tzara-at seem to be permanently shut out of their own city, with no way to make a living other than to beg at the city gate.
An army from Aram is besieging Samaria (Shomron in Hebrew), the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. (Na-aman, the Aramaean general in last week’s haftarah, is not mentioned; perhaps he is deployed elsewhere.) Inside the walls of the city, people are dying of starvation. Outside the city gate are four Israelites with tzara-at. Their skin disease is obvious, and the soldiers of Aram also ignore them, since they are only wretched beggars—with no one left to beg from.
And there were four men, metzora-im, at the entrance of the gate. And they said, each man to his rei-a: Why are we sitting here until we die? (2 Kings 7:3)
metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = people with tzara-at (צָרַעַת), a non-communicable disease characterized by patches of white skin.
rei-a (רֵעַּ) = comrade, companion, friend.
Although shunned by the Israelites inside the walls of the town, the four outcasts are companions and friends with each other. They consider their situation:
If we say “Let us enter the city” and starvation is in the city, we shall die there; but if we stay here, we shall die. So now let us go to the camp of Aram and defect. If they let us live, we shall live, and if they put us to death, then we shall die. (2 Kings 7:4)
An extreme patriot might criticize the four men for deciding to defect (literally, “throw themselves down”) to their country’s enemy. Yet Israel has not taken care of them, and their best hope of staying alive is to take a chance on begging for food from the Aramaean army.
An Empty Camp
So they got up at twilight to come to the camp of Aram, and they came up to the edge of the camp of Aram, and hey!—nobody was there! God had made the camp of Aram hear the sound of chariots, the sound of horses, the sound of a great army; and each man had said to his brother: Hey! The king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us! And they had got up and fled at twilight, and they had abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys, [leaving them] in the camp just as it was. And they had fled for their lives. (2 Kings 7:5-7)
At twilight, while the four metzora-im were getting up to sneak away from the city, the soldiers of Aram were getting up to run away from their camp, terrified by divine auditory hallucinations.
And those metzora-im came up to the edge of the camp, and they entered one tent and they ate and they drank, and they carried off from there silver and gold and clothing and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent, and they carried off [things] from there and hid them. And then they came back. (2 Kings 7:8)
At first the metzora-im think their problems are over. So what if their own country ostracizes them? In the deserted camp of the Aramaeans they have plenty of food and drink, as well as valuables they can sell later to make a living.
Then they said, each man to his rei-a: We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent, delaying until the light of morning. And we will be found guilty for our offense. So let us go now, and come and tell the household of the king. (2 Kings 7:9)
Their offense is withholding the news from the Israelites shut up in the capital. Even delaying overnight would result in punishment. If they delayed for days, more of their fellow Israelites would starve to death, oblivious of God’s miracle.
Why tell the king?
Commentators differ on whether the four outcasts are motivated by ethics, by utility, or by fear. According to Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), we will be found guilty means “We will be held guilty by the throne”. They assume the king of Israel will eventually catch them, and they are afraid of the ensuing punishment.
Other commentary claims the decision of the four metzora-im is practical. Only if the city of Samaria functions again can they resume begging from travelers going in and out of the city gate. If they tell the good news at once to the king’s officials, they can count on the continued support of Israelite travelers. If they withhold the information and Samaria finds out later that the Aramaean army is gone, the Israelites will have a grudge against them. And if they load up Aramaean donkeys with Aramaean goods and try to make a new life elsewhere, they will still be discriminated against because of their skin disease (and perhaps also because of their country of origin). Telling the king of Samaria at once and returning to their old lives as beggars at the gate is their most practical option. (And who knows, maybe later they will have a chance to trade the silver and gold they hid.)
Another viewpoint is that the metzora-im make an ethical decision. It would be wrong to let their fellow Israelites starve, when they now have the means to feed them. So what if their own people ostracized them, and will continue to do so? They can still do the right thing.
These four men are such good friends, so good at talking things through with each other, that I think they considered fear, utility, and ethics when they made their decision. I admire their realism in accepting that as long as their skin disease lasts, they will be ostracized, so the best life they can hope for is as beggars at the gate. (I also wish they would take a chance like Na-aman in last week’s haftarah, and dare to ask the prophet Elisha for a cure.)
I also admire them for catching themselves in the midst of looting the abandoned Aramaean camp, and considering the plight of the people inside the city. What I admire most is that they do not enjoy the fact that now they are full and the people who kicked them out are starving. Instead they decide to share the wealth with the very people who refused to share with them—the clear-skinned city dwellers who followed the Levitical law of exclusion with no remediating measures.
None of us lead charmed lives; we are all ostracized or discriminated against at some point. But every person who resists a chance to discriminate against a former or potential enemy makes the world better.
May we all be blessed with the practicality and the ethical determination of the four metzora-im!
Tags: 2 Kings, haftarah, Naaman, Prophet Elisha, religion, torah portion
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 Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:42-5:19.
What inspires someone to convert to a religion?
For Na-aman, an Aramaean general from Damascus who converts to the religion of Israel in this week’s haftarah, the quick answer is that he decides to convert after an Israelite prophet heals him. But the full story runs deeper.
Na-aman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man [who stood] before his lord with a high rank, because God had given victory to Aram, and the man was a powerful warrior—[and] a man with skin disease. (2 Kings 5:1)
His skin disease is tzara-at , which is a serious ritual impurity in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria; someone who has it must live outside the camp, wear torn clothes, and cover his upper lip—even though the disease is not contagious. The rules in Aram may have been more lenient, but we can assume the disfiguring disease carried some social stigma.
And a raiding party of Aram had gone out and captured from the land of Israel a young na-arah, and she [stood] before the wife of Na-aman. And she said to her lady: If only my lord [stood] before the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would remove his skin disease. (2 Kings 5:2-3)
na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = slave-woman; any girl or young woman during the stage after puberty but before her first pregnancy.
The slave-girl is the one who knows what Na-aman needs to do to get rid of his disfiguring skin disease, a source of social stigma in the ancient Near East. She tells her mistress, who tells her husband, who then tells his master, the king of Aram.
And he came and told his lord, saying: This and this she said, the na-arah who is from the land of Israel. (2 Kings 5:4)
The king of Aram writes a letter for Na-aman to take to the king of Israel, perhaps to guarantee his safe passage through a foreign country. Eventually Na-aman and his servants arrive at the house of the prophet Elisha.
So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the skin disease. Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:9-12)
Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings; A Sign of Arrogance.)
On the other hand, he is willing to listen to advice from servants, including the Israelite girl who told him about Elisha in the first place. This time the grown men traveling with Na-aman as servants advise him.
But his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a na-ar, and he was ritually-pure. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. (2 Kings 5:13-15)
na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave; any boy or unmarried young man. (The male equivalent of na-arah.)
The Talmud considers Na-aman’s statement a declaration of religious conversion. Before Na-aman makes this declaration, he is compared to a boy or a slave, put on the same footing as his Israelite na-arah. Only from that position can he actually meet the prophet and “stand before” him, as earlier in the story subordinates stood before their masters. And only now does Na-aman know that the god of Israel is the only god on earth.
What gives him this knowledge or belief? I think it is not just the miraculous healing he experiences, but the fact that he receives healing only by setting aside his identity as an important Aramaean general and becoming an obedient “boy”.
And Na-aman said: Will it not be given, please, to your servant, enough soil to burden a pair of mules?—because your servant will never again make a rising-offering or an animal sacrifice to other gods, only to God. (2 Kings 5:17)
The only way Na-aman knows how to worship a god is to make offerings in the land of that god. Since he must return to Damascus to serve his king, he asks permission to take some of the dirt of Israel back with him. Elisha says Go in peace.
My own conversion to Judaism 30 years ago was mostly—but not entirely—different from Na-aman’s conversion. I was brought up as an atheist, but during my twenties I felt restless and dissatisfied. As a philosophy major in college, I had reasoned my way to the conclusion that the standard definition of God was contradictory and therefore described an impossibility. Yet every once in a while I was surprised by a flash of intuition that the universe was one and alive. It was a sudden gut feeling, not a rational idea. I felt an increasing need for something like religion, for some other connection with the ineffable. Thus my longing for a religion came not from my head, but from my guts.
In western religions and culture, the body is often considered inferior to the mind. We assume that the mind makes a decision and the body carries it out, like a servant or a beast of labor.
But sometimes the body speaks first. The great general Na-aman’s own body develops a skin disease. Then the least of his servants, the captive Israelite girl, tells him who to go to for a cure. And he follows her advice.
When he arrives in the foreign land of Israel, he is instructed first by the prophet’s servant, then by his own servants. If he had not obeyed them and bathed in the Jordan, Na-aman would have gone home unhealed and unconverted.
If I had not listened to my gut feelings, even though I viewed them as inferior to my rational mind, I would have remained a dissatisfied atheist with a dry life. Instead I began reading about various religions and their attitudes toward life in this world. And I fell in love with Judaism, which seemed to share my irrational, gut conviction that nothing is more important than doing the right thing, regardless of any possible future reward.
It was a good match. I converted 30 years ago, and I am still a passionate Jew.
Part of my conversion was to immerse myself underwater in a mikveh—rather like Na-aman’s seven immersions in the Jordan River. Then I affirmed my inner knowledge that all divinity is one by reading the Shema out loud before three witnesses. This was not so different from Na-aman telling Elisha: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel.
I was not brought up to slaughter and burn animals for God, thank God. But perhaps whenever I pray with other Jews, I am symbolically worshiping God on the soil of our religion. And even as my mind occupies itself with translating the Hebrew prayers into meanings I can accept, my body-servant, my heart and gut, rise in exaltation.
Tags: ark of the covenant, ecstatics, haftarah, King David, King Saul
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 Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and the haftarah is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17.
Being touched by God is a dangerous thing.
Uzzah, in this week’s haftarah, walks next to the cart carrying the ark of the covenant during King David’s first attempt to move it to Jerusalem.
When the oxen pulling the cart stumble, Uzzah instinctively reaches out and grabs at the ark—and God strikes Uzzah dead. (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)
And David was angry that God had broken through, [making] a breach in Uzzah. (2 Samuel 6:8)
The bible does not say whether David is angry at Uzzah or at God, but he is certainly upset that he has to abort his carefully-planned procession to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. For one thing, David is still consolidating his position as Israel’s second king.
He began his career as King Saul’s loyal lieutenant, a charismatic hero in Saul’s war against the Philistines. After Saul turned against David and repeatedly tried to kill him, David fled and found refuge in Philistine territory. After Saul died, David returned and was acclaimed king of Judah, the southern part of Saul’s former kingdom, but one of Saul’s sons became king of the northern territory. Gradually David conquered that land as well, then captured the foreign stronghold of Jerusalem and made it his new capital. But not all the people of Israel supported King David. Some still viewed him as the charismatic war hero who used to lead Saul’s troops; others resented him for opposing King Saul’s son.
So King David decides to bring the ark of the covenant, the people’s most important religious object, into Jerusalem. That way his new administrative center will also be his subjects’ primary center of worship. But after God breaks through and kills Uzzah, David asks: How can it come to me, the ark of God? (2 Samuel 6:9)
David is also angry and afraid because he deliberately set up the transportation of the ark as an occasion of religious rejoicing.
And David and the whole house of Israel were laughing and playing before God, with every woodwind of cypress, and with lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)
At that time, there were companies of “prophets” among the Israelites who entered altered states in order to experience God. Their usual method, according to the two books of Samuel, included playing music and encouraging ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues.
For example, after the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him:
… as you are coming into the town you shall encounter a company of neviyim coming down from the high shrine, preceded by lute and tambourine and flute and lyre, and they shall be mitnabim. (1 Samuel 10:5)
neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = prophets. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God. The Hebrew Bible uses the word neviyim (singular navi (נָבִיא) for both those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God and serve as God’s interpreters. (See my post Haftarah for Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.)
mitnabim (מִתְנַבְּאִים) = speaking in an altered state (including glossolalia), often with ecstatic movement. (Also from the root niba.)
Then the ruach of God will overpower you, vehitnabita with them, and you shall be transformed into another man. (1 Samuel 10:6)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, overpowering mood.
vehitnabita (וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ) = and you shall babble in an altered state, move in ecstasy.
A ruach of God does overpower Saul, but it does not transform him into a better man. It merely makes a breach without killing him, so a ruach can overpower him again and again. Most often Saul is seized with angry jealousy and tries to kill David.
Maybe Saul’s original personality simply could not be transformed so that his altered states were joyful, like those of the neviyim.
David, however, enters the narrative as a charismatic, brave, and clever young man who sizes things up and plans ahead. When things go wrong, he optimistically bounces back with a new scheme.
Although David is a musician, he does not act like the neviyim until it fits his plan to bring the ark to his new capital. And after his first attempt fails because of the death of Uzzah, David waits three months and then tries again.
Then David went and he brought up the ark of God from the house of Oveid-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. …And David was whirling with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen tunic. (2 Samuel 6:12, 6:14)
King David’s tunic is an eifod (אֵפוֹד), two rectangles of material fastened together at the shoulders and belted at the waist. Elsewhere in the Bible an eifod is a ritual garment worn by the high priest over his robe and underpants. David is planning to take the role of high priest as well as king. But on this occasion, he does not wear anything under his tunic.
David and all the household of Israel were bringing up the ark of God with shouts and with the sound of the ram’s horn. And the ark of God entered the City of David. And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, looked down from the window, and she saw the king, David, leaping and whirling before God, and she scorned him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)
Mikhal is not only Saul’s daughter, but also one of David’s wives—arguably his most important wife at the time, since David’s marriage to her helps to legitimize his claim to Saul’s kingdom. She notices that while David is ecstatic leaping and whirling, the front piece of his tunic flaps around below the belt—revealing his lack of underpants.
Once the ark is ensconced in a tent in Jerusalem, King David makes animal offerings and blesses the people in the name of God, like a high priest. Then he hands out bread and cakes to everyone before going to his palace to bless his own household. Mikhal intercepts him at the door.
And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, went out to meet David and she said: How he was honored today, the king of Israel—who exposed himself today to the eyes of the slave-women of his servants as one of the worthless exposes himself! (2 Samuel 6:20)
And David said to Mikhal: Before God—who chose me instead of your father and instead of any of his household, to appoint me sovereign over the people of God, over Israel—before God I will laugh and play; and I will be dishonored even more than this, and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave-women of whom you speak, with them I will be honored. (2 Samuel 6:21)
King David is claiming that he knows proper behavior according to members of the ruling class—and that nevertheless, he will behave in the way that wins the love of the common people. There are times when a king is better off dancing with a flapping tunic—as long as the dancing proves the king has been touched by God.
Religious ecstasy did not help Israel’s first king. King Saul lived in the moment, and if the spirit of God touched him, he acted, for good or for bad.
King David, on the other hand, always planned ahead. He whirled ecstatically in front of the ark because a joyful and over-the-top religious procession was part of his plan for uniting his people.
Sometimes it is good to get emotional over God. I have led Shabbat services with a sequence of songs designed to inspire and elevate people into joy, and even dancing.
But there must be a safe container for ecstasy. Samuel did not realize that Saul was not a safe container for the spirit of God. And Mikhal did not realize that David had created a procession that would be a safe container for religious ecstasy.
May we all be blessed with intuitive knowledge of when it is good to let go, and when it is better to restrain oneself.
Tags: book of Isaiah, book of Jeremiah, haftarah, idol worship, Leviticus, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, Vayikra
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). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.
The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.
The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.
The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)
Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below. The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.
Yotzeir of an idol—
All of them are emptiness;
And what they crave
Cannot be useful. (Isaiah 44:9)
yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.
Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.
Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:
And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)
The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.
Thus said God, king of Israel
And its redeemer, God of Armies:
I am first and I am last
And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)
The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.
And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)
And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)
But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.
The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:
I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion
And like a cloud your transgressions.
Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)
How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?
This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.
Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)
Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.
This people yatzarti for Myself:
My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)
yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)
Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.
But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.
We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.
A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.
But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.