Haftarah Parashat Devarim
July 21, 2018 | 9 Av 5778
The prophets are often hard reading, not only because their messages are difficult to decipher, but also because their messages are frequently grating to our sensibilities. The special haftarah for the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av comes from the first chapter of Isaiah and its message is painfully harsh. The prophet focuses on the nation’s infidelity to God and its gross inability to discern its own faults. This shocking lack of awareness and seeming inability to remain loyal to God led the prophet to make this comparison: “An ox knows its owner, an ass its master’s crib: Israel does not know, My (God’s) people take no thought.” (1:2)
This critique takes aim at the self-superiority of human beings in relation to other animals. Isaiah’s logic goes like this: Animals, even though they have a lower level of discernment than human beings, are capable of being loyal to their masters; how, then, is it possible, that Israel cannot do the same?
Rashi offers two interpretations. In the first, he asserts that these animals, though not sentient, nevertheless have an innate fear of their masters and so do their masters’ will without concern for either reward or punishment. But human beings, even when cognizant of the implications of their actions, lack this fear, so act with willful disregard and disobey God. In the second, Rashi focuses on the difference between oxen and asses. Oxen, he asserts, can be trained through reward and punishment to perform a task, but once they learn it, they do not veer from it. Asses are different. They respond to food as an incentive, but they must continue to receive the reward in order to behave properly. Sadly, humans, according to Rashi, do not consistently respond to either approach.
Rabbi David Kimche contrasts the differences in behavior between animals and human beings this way: Animals, even though they lack higher-level discernment, are still cognizant that they should distance themselves from harm and draw close to benefit. Associating benefit with the master instills in them loyalty. Israel, which should be discerning, seems unable to make the connection between God and all that God has done for them. So they act contrary to their own interests by disregarding God and the Torah.
For these sages, human beings are distinguished from animals because they have volition, the ability to make choices. Animals, act mechanically. Their programming may be innate or may be learned (conditioned), but their loyalty is inviolate since they cannot choose. It is choice which is both the greatest human virtue and the source of the greatest human vice. Isaiah, and our tradition in general, challenges us to be wise – to choose loyalty and recognize and appreciate blessing. Only then are we better than the animals.
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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