Haftarah Parshat Devarim
August 6, 2011
6 Menachem Av 5771
This week we mark the culmination of the three special Shabbatot which precede Tisha b’Av (Tlata d’puranut – the three haftarot of Admonition). The previous two haftarot were taken from Jeremiah, the prophet most often associated with the destruction of the First Temple. The third haftarah, whose opening word gives its name to this special Shabbat – “Hazon” – is taken from the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah, a prophet associated with comfort and solace. This week’s haftarah , though, does not share that tone. It is an out and out reproach of the nation for their sins and disloyalty to God. Isaiah accomplishes this with great drama, calling heavens and earth as witnesses to the testimony against God’s children: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up and they have rebelled against Me.’” (1:2) Two verses later, the angry words are even harsher: “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, brood of evil doers, depraved children – they have forsaken the Lord, spurned the Holy One of Israel, turned their backs [on Him.]
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) offers two alternative explanations of God’s anger as found in this image. He notes God’s profound anger and disappointment as a parent who has been betrayed by the children whom He has raised to be better than they ultimately turned out. He also quoted another interpretation, in the name of his father, who noted that God’s pain was especially great because He had raised His children in the study of His Torah and to a life in communion with His Divine Presence (the Shechina). Both explanations express God’s great sense of betrayal.
This verse has all of the drama and trauma of a courtroom and is expressive of the great alienation between God and His people. It is a desperate and bleak scene with little room for a positive outcome from the perspective of God’s children. The following rabbinic debate expresses the religious anxiety expressed in this prophecy: As it is taught in a baraita: ‘You are sons of the Lord, your God’ (Deut. 14:1) – when you behave as sons, you are designated sons; if you do not behave as sons, you are not designated sons: this is the opinion of Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Meir said: In both cases you are called sons, for it is said: ‘brood of evil doers, depraved children’. (Adapted from Kiddushin 36a)
This debate between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Meir is a significant one. The Talmud uses the imagery of the relationship between a parent and child to represent the relationship between people and God. Rabbi Judah argues that the misbehavior of a child creates an absolute barrier between a parent and a child while Rabbi Meir holds that the bond between a parent and a child is absolute and cannot be broken. The tradition ultimately sides with Rabbi Meir’s opinion. This allows for hope in the face of even the greatest alienation between child and parent – God and human being – since in Rabbi Meir’s opinion the child should never feel abandoned. In this season of the nine days which mark a period of time where we acutely sensitive to this idea of alienation and tragedy, it helps to know that God will not abandon us. There is hope and strength in this idea and perhaps even a willingness to reconcile.