Haftarah Parshat Beshalah
January 26, 2013
15 Shevat 5773
In a previous lesson (5766)*, we examined the various interpretations of the opening verse of the Song of Deborah: “When locks go untrimmed (befroah p’raot) in Israel, when people dedicate themselves – Bless the Lord!” (5:3 NJPS translation) There we focused on trying to ascertain the pshat or plain meaning of this difficult verse.
The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, offers a midrashic interpretation of this verse, totally removing it entirely from its biblical context, in order to teach a lesson about the power of a certain prayer response: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who responds [in the recitation of the Kaddish]: \’Amen, May His great Name be blessed forever and for all time (Amen, yehei Shmei rabbah mevurach l’olam ul’olmei olmaiyah,\’ with all his [or her] might, has the decreed sentence [against him] torn up, as it is said: ‘Retribution was annulled (befroah p’raot) in Israel, when the people offered themselves willingly [praising God], Bless You the Lord.’ (based on Judges 5:3) Why was retribution was annulled\’? – Since the people blessed the Lord.” (Shabbat 119b)
In this passage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi takes advantage of the fact that the word “pera” whose root is “peh resh ayin” has a multitude of meanings. He interprets the first use of this word to mean “leave or annul” and the second use to mean “destruction or ruin”. In addition, he turns this verse on its head, reading it as an “if – then” statement – If you praise God in this particular way, then the stern decree will be averted. The resultant drashah expresses the importance of the famous refrain found in the Kaddish prayer.
How does one recite this refrain with “all one’s might”? On this point there is a disagreement between Rashi and the Tosafot. Rashi understood it to mean “with great kavanah (intention)” while the Tosafot asserted that it means to recite it “out loud”. The halacha has been determined according to the opinions of both: “One should have kavanah in the recitation of the Kaddish and answer it out loud” (See Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayyim 56:1) provided it not recited so loudly that it causes derision (see Mishneh Brurah s.q. 5).
Why did the sages put so much credence in the recitation of this refrain? Rabbi David Abudraham (14th century Spain) asserts that the word “shmei” should not be read “His name” but rather “the name ‘Yod Hei’”, meaning that by reciting this phrase, we are actually rendering God’s name great and whole in the world. The recitation of this phrase then becomes an act of Divine recognition. (See Abudraham Hashalem, Perush Hakadish)
If we broaden the significance of this interpretation, it might be possible to assert that when we act in a way that brings about God’s recognition in the world, we have done something truly big – world changing – fate changing. If we can have an effect through heart felt recitation, how much more so through heart felt action!
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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