Haftarah Parashat Lekh lekha
October 20, 2018 | 11 Heshvan 5779
As is well known, the Jewish tradition has different ways of reading a text. Among them are the pshat or plain meaning of the text and drash – the rabbinic interpretive way of reading the text. In this week’s haftarah, we are presented with a verse which meant one thing in its historical or plain meaning context and something totally different for the rabbinic tradition. The haftarah is set in the period of Shivat Zion – the return from Babylonian exile. The human “hero” for the Jews of that period was the king of the Persians – Cyrus (or Koresh as he was known in Hebrew) since he was responsible for both conquering the Babylonians and permitting the Jews to return to their homeland after 70 long years of exile. His role is described in the verse: “Who has roused a victor (Cyrus) from the East, summoned him to His service (tzedek)? Has delivered up nations unto him and trodden sovereigns down? Has rendered their swords like dust, their bows like windblown straw?” (41:2) Here, God is praised for raising up Cyrus as the “savior” of God’s people.
For some in the rabbinic period, this verse, when taken out of its historical contexts and read a bit differently, matched their vision of Avraham, the founder of their religious tradition. They read the verse this way: “Who awakened [people’s awareness of God]? The man from the east. Righteousness (tzedek) he called to attend his steps”, resulting in the following midrash: “Rabbi Reuven said: ‘Because the nations of the world were asleep (ensconced in idolatry), they did not come under the wing of the Divine Presence. And who awakened them to come under the wings of God’s Presence? Avraham. And not only did Avraham awaken the nations to recognize God; he also awakened tzedakah (righteousness) as well. How so? Avraham opened an inn with entrances on all sides in order to welcome wayfarers who came and went.” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 110:1 Buber edition p. 460)
The sages saw Avraham as an exemplar of kindness and hospitality and that these values represented God’s vision to the world. When people saw and experienced the behavior of Avraham and his wife Sarah, they realized the preciousness of their beliefs. These ancestors are meant to serve as a paradigm for our behavior. We are intended to act in a way that exemplifies God’s vision for the world. This is what should be happening in our private lives, in our homes and especially in our synagogues. Following Avraham and Sarah, we should welcome and treat all with love.
In memory of my friend, Rabbi Sam Fraint, rabbi emeritus of Moriah Congregation, Deerfield, Illinois – a rabbi who led with Avrahamic vision.
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.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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