Haftarat 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.

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  1. Hi,

    I enjoy your teaching but I have one comment. In the OT El was making a huge difference between Israel and Juda. The curse or blessing for one did not imply to the other. It’s a bad habit to mix the two by calling today’s Jewish people’s Israelites unless they live in the nation of Israel.

    Jewish people are from the tribe of Juda, and Judean are Hebrew, not Israelite. So my concern is that you use the term Israelite for Judean, the Jewish, witch they are not.

    Best regards.

    GG

    Gilles

    >

    • You bring up an important distinction, Gilles. At some points in the Hebrew Bible Israel and Judah are two separate kingdoms with separate prophecies about them; at other points, both territories are considered part of a single kingdom of Israel, and all the people are called Israelites.

      The books of Genesis through Joshua predict there will be a single country encompassing the territories of all 12 tribes of Israel. (Actually 11 of the tribes, since members of the tribe of Levi live in cities within all 11 tribal territories.) The two books of Samuel describe King David conquering the whole land and passing it on to his son Solomon. In 1 Kings, after the death of King Solomon the northern half of his kingdom rebels and secedes. Then there are two kingdoms the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah–until the Assyrians capture Samaria, the capital of Israel, in 722 B.C.E. Assyria conquers some towns in Judah as well, but does not succeed in taking Judah’s capital, Jerusalem. So the kingdom of Judah (home of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) survives for another 135 years by paying tribute to Assyria.

      Around 620 B.C.E. King Josiah of Judah takes advantage of the gradual disintegration Assyrian Empire and conquers a few parts of the old kingdom of Israel. Josiah promotes the idea of a new united Israel. In Biblical writings after that, “Israel” and “Judah” become interchangeable terms, and “Israelite” also refers to citizens of Judah. Since the second half of the book of Isaiah was written in the 6th century B.C.E., well after Josiah’s reign, he often referred to the exiled from Jerusalem and other parts of Judah as Israelites.

      By the way, citizens of the modern nation of Israel are called Israelis, not Israelites. And you are quite right that modern Jews are never called Israelites. (However, today’s Jews probably include descendants from all twelve tribes, not just the tribe of Judah, since a number of people from the northern kingdom of Israel fled south to Judah and settled there when Assyria took over the north. All we know for sure, based on DNA samples, is that some Jews today are descendants of the Cohen branch of the tribe of Levi.)

      This is a long reply, but I hope it addresses your concerns! Thank you for reading my post.

      blessings,
      Melissa


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