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Beha\’alothekha 5773

Haftarah Parshat Behaalotekha
(Zechariah 2:15-4:7)
May 25, 2013
16 Sivan 5773

This week’s haftarah opens with a “messianic moment”. It foreshadows a time when all of the nations will recognize God and show proper obeisance in response to God’s active involvement in the world: “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he is awakened (nei’or -Hebrew root: ayin vav resh) from His holy habitation.” (2:17)

What does it mean to say that God will “wake up” – a not uncommon biblical expression? This anthropomorphism apparently bothered Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets: “All of the wicked shall be consumed (silenced) from before God, for He is revealed from His holy habitation.” Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain), on the other hand, is concerned with the proper grammatical understanding of this word: “There are interpreters who [hold that] the ‘nun’ is not a root letter and therefore means ‘awaken’ while others [hold that] the ‘nun’ is a root letter, and therefore means “roar” [like a lion]. (Ibn Ezra according to a student – Mikraot Gedolot HaKeter)

Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence), following Ibn Ezra’s first interpretation, asserts that the word “nei’or” should be understood figuratively to mean “like a man who awakens from his sleep”. He does not elaborate but a later philosophically oriented interpreter, Rabbi Joseph Kaspi (13th-14th century Spain) did: “The Torah speaks in the language of human beings [so this phrase means] that it was as if God was asleep and that He has now awoken from His sleep. This is in contradiction to the thoughts of Aristotle who held that God ‘sleeps’ meaning that God created the world but no longer plays a role in its workings. ” (adapted)

The above interpretations concern themselves with the specifics of how to understand this theologically charged phrase; the following midrash is more concerned with what might arouse God: “Said Rabbi Pinhas: Five times in the first Book of Psalms David implored the Holy One, blessed be He, to rise up: ‘Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God’ (Psalm 3:8); ‘Arise, O Lord, in Your anger’ (Psalm 7:7); ‘Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up Your hand’ (Psalm 10:12); ‘Arise, O Lord, let not man prevail’ (Psalm 9:20); ‘Arise, O Lord, confront him.’ (Psalm 17:3) – God said to David: ‘David, My son, even if you implore Me to rise up many times, I will not rise. So, when will I rise up? [I will rise up] when you see the poor oppressed and the needy sighing,’ as it says: ‘For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, said the Lord’ (Psalm 12:6). Rabbi Shimon ben Jonah said: ’Now will I arise’- as long as she (Jerusalem)wallows in the dust, [I], as it were, [am oppressed, as well]. But when that day cometh, in connection with which it is written: ‘Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem (Isaiah 52:2), in that hour, ‘Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord’ (Zechariah 2:17). Why? ‘For He is awakened out of His holy habitation’ (ibid).” (Bereishit Rabbah 75:1 Theodore Albeck ed. p. 877-8)

The theological problem of describing the exact nature of how God deports Himself on earth does not seem to have preoccupied the sages in this midrash. They seem much more concerned with the question of over what God acts. God cannot bear oppression. He deplores poverty. The incomplete redemption of His people burdens Him. The world’s unredeemed state awakens Him. His causes should not allow us to slumber either.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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