Haftarah Parashat Shofetim
August 18, 2018 | 7 Elul 5778
It is difficult for “privileged” people to comprehend what it might be like to be conquered and turned over to others as worthless property. Yet this was the experience of countless generations of Jews whose fate was determined by conquerors or others who held their fate in their hands. It is equally hard to understand what solace might be found in a promise which builds on this reality: “For thus said the Lord: ‘You were sold for no price and shall be redeemed without money.” (52:3)
This verse seeks to emphasize how very easy it was for people to lose their freedom. That certainly was no cause for comfort. The verse, however, turns this situation on its head, promising that God will also extricate his people from slavery with similar ease. (Amos Haham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra p. 561) This promise was meaningful to a people forcibly exiled at the hands of the Babylonians who yearned to return to their homeland. The hope in this promise was nothing less than miraculous.
If this promise seems a little too facile for moderns, it was also troublesome for some of the medieval commentators who could not imagine that redemption could be without cost. Their definition of cost, of course, was different. Rashi read this verse metaphorically: “You were sold on account of something worthless, namely the evil inclination, which left you with no merit [causing your exile], and your redemption will come about without money, namely, through your repentance [making you worthy of redemption].”
Rashi has reframed the theology of this verse. Instead of a promise of divine providence, he has transformed it into a moral message intended to encourage behavior warranting redemption. This sort of message would not have been comforting to the generation of the prophet who were languishing in exile, but for sages in a different generation it held a significant message for a normative community.
The radical transformation in the meaning of this verse from its pshat or plain meaning to its drash or interpretive meaning provides us with a valuable lesson in how we read things. It reminds us that the reader is an active and not a passive participant in determining the meaning of what we read or experience and that our interpretation of a text or experience is very much shaped by who we are. The attentive reader can discover the different layers of meaning that a text might have. This awareness, along with a sensitivity to the context of both the text and that of the interpreter, opens the door not only to the universe of meaning in the text but to a better understanding of who we are.