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January 21, 2011 / 16 Shevat, 5771
Haftarah for Parshat Yitro
Isaiah 6:1-7:6;& Isaiah 9:5-6

This is the first haftarah in the haftarah cycle that has been composed of selections from three distinct chapters. The first chapter Isaiah 6:1-4 is a recording of a vision Isaiah had in 733 BCE, “the year that Uzziah died. The second section chapter 7 took place two years earlier in 735 BCE “in the reign of Ahaz.” It composed of two parts. Chapter 7:1-6 and Chapter 9 verses 5-6.

In the Chapter 6 Isaiah had a vision of the Lord on a heavenly throne surrounded by seraphim, angelic beings who mostly sang songs and praised God. The word seraph appears in the singular and the plural in the Bible in two distinct contexts. In the book of Numbers (21:6 and Deut 8:15) it refers to a species of serpent. God sends seraph-snakes to punish the complaining Israelites. Later the Lord tells Moses to make a seraph and place it on a standard. Moses makes a copper serpent snake. In Isaiah the 14:29 the seraph flies. It is a serpent snake.

The seraph in this morning's haftarah has to be different. These seraphim are semi-divine beings with three pairs of wings; they stand, fly and proclaim God's holiness before God's throne. While I am certain the seraphim worked very hard at their jobs and did it excellently, what is most relevant for us is line 3, where they call out, Holy, Holy ,Holy the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with his glory. That's correct it's the first sentence of the kedushah.

The core of the Kedushah consists of three biblical passages: the one from this morning's haftarah. A second from Ezekiel 3:12 Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place, and Psalms 146:10 The Lord will reign for ever and ever, Thy God, O Zion, unto all generations , Hallelujah.

The Kedushah has served as a key prayer in our tradition since early rabbinic times. It is customary for people to stand on their toes three times, emulating the seraphic beings on high when they recite this verse. Some people choose to focus their energy in three ascending places when they perform these actions. First they focus on their center, their stomach. The second kadosh raises their focus to their heart and finally with the third, their brain. The kedushah, the prayer of holiness is a tool to help us focus when we pray.

Isaiah's vision terrifies him and a seraph flies over him and touches his lips with hot coals and he is purified. Isaiah then hears the voice of the Lord asking for a volunteer to tell the people of their doom. The prophet volunteers and asks how long the message of doom must last? He is told that it will end with the destruction and exile of Judah. The prophet is also told that the destruction of Judah (which took place in 586 BCE) will not be a total destruction because a remnant shall be saved and become the seed for a renewed people. Isaiah Chapter 6 and Chapter 9 has traditionally served as a source for mainstream Christianity and most recently Hebrew Christians who call themselves Jews for Jesus.

Chapter 7 begins with a description of an alliance between the Ephraimites (the Northern Kingdom) and Syria that threatened Jerusalem (the Southern Kingdom). The King and people are frightened and the prophet urges them to be calm. Because…AND THEN IT SKIPS TO CHAPTER 9.

THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT. Music lovers do you remember Handel's Messiah? This is the source! Handel explained this source the way his religious tradition had taught him. A child, a messianic child will be born and (to quote Handel) And his name shall be called, wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah was proclaiming the birth of King Hezekiah who was to be a great King. Our Christian neighbors saw this as a proof text for a man who would be born five hundred years later.

Our rabbis who selected this haftarah understood that Prophets when they spoke about individuals prophesied in the here and now. They knew that Isaiah was referring to the birth of Hezekiah. Our neighbors didn't or couldn't for a variety of complicated political reasons. For us the haftarah predicts both the rejuvenation of a people at some future time and the birth of a charismatic leader who would resolve a contemporary situation.

How can the message embodied in these complicated issues reach out to us in more than just a historical way? It could begin to provide us with a link to the body language of prayer. Elevating ourselves three times when we recite the word Kadosh is a key to understanding that there is a body language of prayer that if we wish we can reclaim. Consider how many physical gestures and movements are retained in our prayer services. We stand, sit, bow, cover our eyes, take steps forward and backward to mention just a few. These activities are not isolated but part of the choreography of prayer. Ask your rabbi about it.

Isaiah also offers us a message of hope even though there are times when we think that we as individuals and members of families and as a people have arrived at our darkest hour. Finally, this haftarah demonstrates how one text can be interpreted differently. This is an important lesson if we consider the nature of how we communicate to those with whom we interact.

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

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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