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Haftarah Parashat Shemot

Haftarah Parashat Shemot
January 6 , 2018 | 19 Tevet 5778
Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23

Difficult verses from the Tanakh are often the proving ground for some of the rabbinic sages’ most provocative and creative ideas. For instance, this week’s haftarah, which ostensibly deals with themes like the redemption and punishment of the people of Israel while they were under Assyrian domination, has an obscure verse which seemingly describes God’s determination to punish His people’s disloyalty without measure: “Assailing them with fury unchained (b’se’esea), his pitiless blast bore them off on a day of gale.” (27:8) This verse likely refers to the destruction wreaked upon the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria, lending this tragedy theological justification.

The word “se’esea”, rendered above as “unchained” (NJPS), is, however, an obscure word. Some rabbinic sages interpreted it differently, using a rabbinic method which breaks a word into component parts. This procedure, known as notarikon, renders the word as “seah seah”. A “seah” is a common form of measure which is not overly large. This interpretation gave the verse an entirely different meaning. Instead of full throttled punishment, this creative etymology understood God’s punishment to be measured and manageable. (See Targum Yonathan)

This interpretation also prompted the formation of an interesting rabbinic theological concept. The doubling of the word “seah” led some sages to understand that the intention of this verse was to teach that divine justice would be meted out in like manner – “midah k’neged midah” or “measure for measure”. This interpretation led the following midrash to see the above verse not as a description of God’s punishment of Israel but rather as an explanation of how God would deliver retribution upon the Egyptians of Torah times for their enslavement of the children of Israel: “Rabbi Yehudah said: ‘the Egyptians would be stricken with the very staff that they struck the Israelites.’ Rabbi Nehemiah said: ‘the Egyptians will be slain with the sword with which they slew Israel.’ [Why? On account of the word] “b’seaseah” – [read it:] ‘b’seah seah’ – ‘measure for measure’. As Rabbi Meir taught: ‘With the measure that a person metes out, so it shall be measured out for him.'” (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:4 Mandelbaum ed. p. 203-4)

This midrash teaches a simple, but important, lesson: good leads to more good, and evil leads to more evil. And even if we don’t always see poetic justice occur, it is nevertheless wise to behave as if our deeds, both good and bad, have repercussions that will rebound to affect us and those we care about, because all to often, they do.

About This Commentary

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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