Haftarah Parshat Bemidbar
May 11, 2013
2 Sivan 5773
This week’s haftarah opens with a blessing: “The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, ‘You are not My people’, they shall be called children of the Living God.” (2:1) This blessing, though, seems out of place since it is sandwiched in the middle of an acrimonious admonition aimed at the people of Israel’s disloyalty to God.
The following Tannaitic (Mishnaic period) midrash attempts to resolve this apparent contradiction with a parable: “’For you are not My people’ (1:9) and it says [as well]: ‘The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, You are not My people, they shall be called children of the Living God.’ (2:1) What does this verse have to do with the other verse? A parable. [This can be compared to] a king who became angry with his wife. He sent for a scribe (a sofer) to come and to write for a bill of divorce (a get). Before the scribe arrived, the king reconciled with his wife. The king said: ‘I cannot let the scribe leave without having done any work’ so he said to him: ‘Come, write that I have doubled the sum in her wedding contract (ketuba).’ This explains why the prophet wrote both ‘You are not My people’ and ‘the number of people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea.’” (Sifrei Bemidbar 131, Kahana edition, p. 53)
These days, we feel a little uncomfortable using this sort of parable to describe the relationship between God and His people but what did it mean to its audience in ‘pre-modern’ times? Rabbi Moshe David Avraham Trois Ashkenazi (18th century Poland), in his commentary, Toldot Adam, offers an interpretation: “The intention of this parable is [to teach] the greatness of repentance (teshuva) that it turns sins into merits. This is indicated by the doubling of the value of the ketubah. Thus, Israel which sinned became reconciled with God through teshuva. This is what is meant by the blessing [in the first verse of the haftarah.]
Can people change? Can relationships be mended? The answer of this midrashic interpretation of our haftarah is a resounding yes! People can turn from the path of darkness to the path of light and with change, with repentance they can become ‘new’. God does not reject those who change themselves – who fix themselves. Rather, he considers their efforts meritorious. We should too!
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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