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Haftarah Parshat Ki Tetzei

Haftarah Parshat Ki Tetzei (Isaiah 54:1-8)
September 6, 2014 / 11 Elul 5774

This week’s haftarah, the fifth of the seven haftarot of consolation which follow Tisha b’Av (Shiva d’nehamta), uses the image of a barren woman who has been miraculously transformed into the bearer of children as a means to express the renewal and transformation of the nation after the end of the of the Babylonian exile: “Shout, O barren one, you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused, said the Lord.” (54:1) This image is powerful because the emotions it entails are so raw and extreme. Throughout history, it has been adopted to reflect the seeming hopelessness of the Jewish people’s pessimistic projections of its future as contrasted with the more optimistic future which usually results.

The prophet’s message is intended to counter the tendency toward negative thinking. The view of the great mystic, the Ari, Rabbi Yitkhak Luria (Tzfat 16th century), as recorded in the reflections of his student, Rabbi Hayim Vital, interprets the meaning of this prophecy for his own generation: “For this orphaned generation even the smallest the thing done for the sake of Heaven is more important before God, blessed be He, than the great things done by previous generations. This is the meaning of ‘Shout, O barren one’ – even if a generation reckons itself to be orphaned, envisioning itself as getting weaker and weaker, in any case, ‘the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused’ – even though in truth they may be lowlier than previous generations, still, they are important before God, blessed be He, as if they are multitudinous and great because they are the children of the forlorn.” (Adapted quotation from Pri Hatzadik by Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen from Lublin)

The crux of the message is that each generation cannot live its life in the shadow of previous generations, wallowing and whining about its diminished nature. Every generation must do what it must do, live its life of Torah to the best of its ability without the shadow of an inferiority complex casting its pall over everything that it does.  If it does so, then, according to Rabbi Hayim Vital, its deeds are more pleasing to God than the acts of greater generations. The key, though, is not to allow visions of the past to incapacitate those living in the present.

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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