Haftarah Parashat Ki Tavo
Selihot – Motzei Shabbat
September 1, 2018 | 21 Elul 5778
Isaiah’s prophecy of light and darkness is an eschatological prophecy, namely, it speaks of the end of time. In those days to come, Israel and Jerusalem will be enveloped in light while all else will be dark: “Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you the Lord will shine.” (60:2) This verse is likely an allusion to the plague of darkness in Egypt. (S. Paul, Isaiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 473) The intended message being that justice will be served both for the oppressor and the oppressed. Israel, who suffered at the hands of the nations shall in the end merit light, while the nations which oppressed them shall experience darkness.
In the following midrash, this verse is transformed from a description of the end of days into a portrayal of the revelation of the Torah: “And the rabbis said: the nations of the world did not observe the Torah which was given from the midst of the darkness, regarding them it is written: ‘Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth’ (Isaiah 60:2), but Israel, which observed the Torah which was given from the midst of the darkness, as it is written: ‘when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness’ (Deuteronomy 5:20), regarding whom it is said: ‘But upon you the Lord will shine, and His Presence be seen over you.’ (Isaiah 60:2)” (Vayikra Rabbah 6:6, Margoliot edition p. 146)
On the face of it, this midrash presents itself as a polemic expressing the primacy of the nation of Israel which accepted and observes the Torah over those who do not. A closer look, however, reveals a deeper, more sophisticated, message. What distinguishes Israel from the other nations in this midrash? Torah, the source of light, is revealed in an environment of darkness. Darkness here represents a world characterized by evil. It is a normal human tendency for those living in such an environment not to challenge it and to simply live according to its rules, base as they may be. Israel distinguishes itself, in its willingness to accept the Torah in a such a world and do something positive in the midst of this darkness.
The message taught here is that the light will shine on those who are willing to do what is right even when faced by an environment which does wrong and is filled with darkness. This is the root of the fundamental optimism that has animated Judaism since time immemorial.
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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