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October 17, 2009
Bere'shit Ashkenazim: Isaiah 42:5-43:10

This haftarah is taken from the second half of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah lived in the mid eight century. I don't wish to take too much time explaining the structure of the book of Isaiah but for our purposes it is important to understand that the first 39 chapters of the book were prophecies of exile and doom announced to King Hezekiah who also lived in the eighth century. Beginning with Chapter 40 the prophecies shift to themes of consolation and reflect a period some two centuries later. Chapters 40-66 speak to a population that resides either in Exile in Babylonia or in Judea. They are concerned with reconciliation and hope.

The connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah is obvious. The haftarah begins with the proclamation that God created heavens and the earth and this is the morning that we read of the creation of the world.

I assume that when this haftarah became part of our liturgy that those who listened to it were charmed by its poetry and stimulated by its many messages. But poetry is often hard to decipher and its messages can be lost or buried in too complex metaphors. I suggest that some of the messages that this haftarah attempts to convey challenge us to think about the following:

When you read the haftarah ask yourself is God speaking to or about a messenger and is that messenger an individual - the prophet- or is the messenger a people “plundered and despoiled with none (but God) to rescue them” (verse 22). If we the people of Israel are the messenger then how do we need to behave to have our eyes opened. The text speaks of God allowing the deaf to hear and the blind to see and it makes many references to light. While the Torah portion shares with us the sequence of God creating the world, this morning's haftarah challenges us to see beyond the obvious and the grandeur of creation. Consider the great miracles and opportunities to improve the world that human behavior offers. How can we as messengers, as a people, make a difference if we saw the light? Could we be a light amongst nations?

Haftarah Mahar Hodesh: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

This haftarah will be read as the haftarah for parashat Berishit in 2009. This haftarah is almost always recited on Shabbat if the next day is Rosh Hodesh. The haftarah was chosen to be recited on the Shabbat when the next day is Rosh Hodesh because of the sentence, “Tomorrow will be the new moon”. It appears that it was customary for some type of family feast to take place on these occasions because the text refers to both Saul and David attending family feasts. Saul sat down to partake of the meal and David allegedly returned to his hometown Bethlehem for a family feast.

Michael Fishbane in his commentary cites references in the Palistinean Talmud that explain that our rabbis must have believed that a connection between the waxing and waning of the moon was related to the cleansing of sins and atonement. In addition the special Torah reading on Rosh Hodesh (Numbers 28:11) links the sacrifice with atonement as well. Today, in the non-Orthodox world, Rosh Hodesh is barely observed in a separate and distinct fashion.

The haftarah focuses on the rising influence of David and his weakening and increasingly perilous relationship with King Saul. Prior to this selection, we are told that Saul was jealous of David's military successes had resulted in his throwing spears at him. These incidents took place around 1000 BCE. Our story begins with David fleeing from Saul and begging Saul's son, Jonathan, to explain Saul's hostility. Jonathan, caught in the middle between his best friend and the father whom he loves, cannot quite believe that his father would desire to kill David without at least sharing it with him. David suggests a plan that will reveal Saul's true intentions and Jonathan agrees. It is at this point that our story begins.

Traditionally the haftarah is explained as a lesson to extol the friendship of David and Jonathan. I am not familiar with any text that addresses the issue of divided loyalties. But I think the issue of divided loyalties speaks to us.

How many times have we been caught between love and responsibility? How often have we felt torn because we wished to respond one way to a child or loved one and our loyalty to our spouses or parents caused conflict? How often have we attempted to be the reconciler when we should have refrained from interfering?

The new moon has traditionally been a time of renewal and if we connect this minor festival in our thinking to the nature of our potential conflicting relationships it can once again become a meaningful experience.

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" Jewish Lights Publishing

Translation of the Haftarah may be found here:

The FJMC weekly haftarah commentary is one of the few haftarah commentaries available on line. The USCJ through its Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem has also been posting a weekly haftarah commentary for a number of years. We highly recommend it. If you are interested you can find a link on the left side of our weekly commentary and click through.

In 2003 the FJMC commissioned a Sefer Haftarah, a scroll consisting of all the Haftarot which follows the Haftarah order that appears in the USCJ and Rabbinical Assembly Torah translation and commentary Etz Hayim. The FJMC Sefer Haftarah visits a different synagogue in North America every week.This scroll contains vowels and cantillation and allows the haftarah reader to experience the Haftarah in a more personal way. FJMC also produces individual personalized Haftarot for those who wish to recognize a special occasion. Scrolls of Haftarot have been in use since the early middle ages.

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