January 11, 2013
This commentary is a reprint of an original written and published in 2010 by Rabbi Charles Simon.
Rosh Hodesh Sh'vat
This morning is Rosh Hodesh Sh'vat and a special haftarah is read.
The haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh is taken from the final chapter of the book of Isaiah. Its connection to Isaiah chapter one is indicative of an editor's work but that will not be addressed in this d'rash. The haftarah was chosen to be read on Rosh Hodesh as a result of a quote in line twenty-three. And new moon after new moon, and Sabbath after Sabbath, All flesh shall come to worship me.
The haftarah is a collection of diverse prophecies, judgments and salvation from a late selection of the Book of Isaiah. The reference to the building of the new Temple (66:1) reflects the concern of those living in the period immediately following Cyrus the Mede (538 BCE) granting permission to the Judean exiles in Babylon to return to our homeland. We find references to the discussions of how the Temple should be rebuilt some eighteen years later in the book of Haggai.
The tone of the text changes in verse 18 and focuses on an ingathering of all the exiles.
It is important for us to realize that Isaiah's vision of an ingathering of exiles and bringing everyone to worship God is a much broader and inclusive vision than that of any other prophet. Isaiah's final vision includes non-Jews, some of whom God will take and make priests. This represents a radical diversion from the Torah, which is much more restrictive. Isaiah in chapter 56 states that if eunuchs or foreigners keep the Sabbath and hold fast to the divine commandment then they shall be accepted into the Temple mount and will be able to offer sacrifices on the altar.
Let not the foreigner say, Who has attached himself to the Lord, The Lord will keep me apart from His people....As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, I will give them, in MY house and within My walls, a monument. Their burnt offerings shall be welcome on my altar. Is. 56-3-7
The Haftarah for Rosh Hodesh raises the major challenge for the Jew in modernity today. It also challenges us as members of families to consider on a regular basis the non-Jew who seek to be live Jewishly. How we treat the supportive non-Jewish spouse is the litmus test of our survival as a modern, ever growing people. The prophet openly violates tradition and says they will be welcome at “My Altar”-- a much more far reaching approach to than where most of us stand today. The prophet challenges us to consider and to rethink where the supportive non-Jewish spouse should stand and what role they should play in our future.
The Haftarah for Va-era is taken from Ezekiel's' oracles against foreign nations (Chapters 25-32) and consists of two prophecies. The first one is delivered against Egypt during the last days of the first temple (586 B.C.E.) and the second informs us that it is permissible to plunder Egypt's wealth. The connection between the Torah and Haftarah reading is the manner in which God educates the Egyptians so they come to realize God's supremacy. One wouldn't call God's method gentle.
Egypt and Pharaoh are compared to a mythological sea serpent that dwells in and rules over the Nile. God will place a hook in its mouth (Egypt and Pharoah) and toss them into the desert. Eventually after forty years God will restore them as a nation in a much lessened form. Just as Israel had to wander for forty years in order to enter the Promised Land; Egypt will also need to be exiled for a similar amount of time before they are allowed to return. The mythological battle in Exodus is paralleled by the prophecy of Ezekiel. The Haftarah stresses a theme that is also present in Jeremiah. Babylon will be the instrument of our return and alliances with Egypt should not be trusted.
Why is it that our prophets consistently warn us not to engage and ally with Egypt and what implications could that have for us today? Could it be that the culture of Egypt was not compatible with the culture of Israel? Could it be that the culture of Babylon and Assyria were more reliable and therefore more worthy of our trust?
Consider: Have you ever tried to establish friendships or business relations with certain people or specific companies and found that you were too different, too dissimilar to be compatible? Do you remember how difficult it always was for a number of high school students to fit in with the “cool” groups and how they felt when they were rejected? Have you ever worked really hard to be accepted by a family member only to realize that it was never going to work?
That is how our prophets understood Israel's relationship with Egypt. It wouldn't work until they were greatly humbled and accepted certain basic values, in this case, God. At certain times some of our Kings and nobles sought alliances with Egypt and hoped they could become a serious ally. It never worked. One of the lessons of this morning's Haftarah is that sometimes some things will only work after a tremendous culture change occurs. In this instance the change must come from Egypt, from the other. In some instances, it must come from us.
This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish Community" Jewish Lights Publishing, and "Understanding the Haftarot: Everyperson's Guide."
Recognizing our Maasim Tovim
Doer of Good Deeds Honorees
J Harold Nissen
Hudson Valley Region