|February 10, 2012 / 17 Shevat, 5772
Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6
Our tradition has a love affair with the opening scene of this haftarah. Take, for example, the words of the angels, quoted three times in our daily services alone:
Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot – melo kol ha’aretz k’vodo.
It’s sublime, and intended to be so. But there is more to the scene than just the angelic orders. Let us take our eyes off the splendor and focus for a moment on the lone human character. He has something to teach us.
Isaiah’s first reaction to his vision is to feel ashamed. And then, once he has been cleansed and purified with fire, and bravely volunteered his services, he is explicitly told that he is bound to fail. His job is not to enlighten, he is told, but rather, to obfuscate. He must push the people further and further towards their inevitable breaking point. Exile and disaster are bound to come, he is told, and there is nothing he can do to stop it.
At this point, if this were us, we might consider walking away. What, after all, is the point of being a prophet if you can’t affect the future?
But Isaiah isn’t like us. He stays. He doesn’t question his fate: he humbly asks, instead, whether there will be an end to the process and if so, when. The answer comes:
It [the people] shall be ravaged like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled: its stump shall be a holy seed.
After which answer, apparently, Isaiah departs content. Not only that – he, and the prophetic schools that succeeded him, will go on to create the largest of our prophetic books, from which just about one-third of our haftarot throughout the year are drawn.
What kept Isaiah going? There are two ideas here.
The first is the image of the stump, she’eirit Yisrael, the remnant of the people that will survive the coming disaster. Isaiah found a way to hold this image in his mind on a daily basis. He called his son She’ar Yashuv (a remnant will return). We can imagine him being reminded of his vision every time he looked into his son’s eyes. Even on the most dismal of days, when he could see trouble coming and do nothing to stop it, his son would remind him that there was hope for the future.
But the second idea is even more compelling. What is left behind is a holy seed. The word kadosh reverberates through all three of the sections of Isaiah’s work. It is Isaiah, and only Isaiah, who coins the name K’dosh Yisrael for God. It’s as if all the light, all the sound, all the splendor of the first part of the haftarah are concentrated into a tiny pinpoint of kedushah and take on the form of a seed – something small, that can survive long cold winters and the scorching heat of summer, retaining the potential to grow and flourish. Something that is human rather than angelic, powerful in its fragility.
Isaiah’s success doesn’t lie in his ability to change the future – he does not do that. But he nurtured the seed of kedushah, and we still read his words today. That holy spark is his true legacy.
As we read the haftarah this week, we should let our imaginations drift to the beautifully described realms above us. But let us also look around the synagogue. Let us recognise both the stump and the seed in each other – both our commitment to our survival, and the spark of holiness that fires our souls.
Isaiah would have been proud.
This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Deborah Silver. Rabbi Silver is at Adat Ari El in the Valley Village area of Los Angeles. Rabbi Silver, a British-born former lawyer, was ordained in 2010 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. While there, she was the co-editor with Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, of the Ziegler Adult Learning Walking With... series.
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The "Build a Pair" Program is a comprehensive and fun learning program to introduce 5th, 6th or 7th graders to the joy and mitzvah of Tefillin in Jewish life.
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A comprehensive education program with videos helps the religious school teach students the meaning of Tefillin in Jewish life and practice.
Students practice writing their Hebrew/Jewish names and the SHEMA (first line) to insert into pre-made wooden Tefillin boxes.
Students decorate the boxes in any creative way they wish, allowing for personal expression.
Students either compete or cooperate in writing a "wRAP" song to sing at a Big Event.
The Big Event can be the World Wide Wrap (WWW), sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs (FJMC), held annually on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday. The WWW program is designed to introduce and re-introduce Jewish men [and women] to the significance of "laying" Tefillin.
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