Haftarah Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Isaiah 61:10-63:9)
September 16, 2017 / 25 Elul 5777
This Shabbat concludes the seven haftarot of consolation which follow Tisha B’Av (Shiva d’Nehamta). As this name indicates, the messages of these prophecies very much focuses on quieting the insecurities facing a beleaguered people. The original audience for these prophesies had faced the destruction of their nation and seventy years of exile, and now they were embarking on rebuilding and reestablishing it. Faced by insurmountable obstacles, they were haunted by the thought that their past mistakes and their current misdeeds might impede their mission. They feared disaster and destruction. The prophet’s role was, in part, to provide them with a secure state of mind so that they might carry out God’s plan to reestablish their homeland.
To this end, the prophet used a recurring image among the prophets: ‘Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen who shall never be silent by day or by night. O you, the Lord’s reminders, be not silent, and give Him (God) no rest, until He establish Jerusalem and make her renowned on earth.” (62:6-7) The intent of these figurative watchmen was both to watch over Israel (Jerusalem) and to be a constant prod to God to firmly establish its vaunted status and safety.
There were a variety of attempts by traditional interpreters to assign an identity to these “watchmen”. Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, identified them figuratively as “the deeds of our righteous ancestors by which the city of Jerusalem is repaired and guarded before God perpetually, day and night.” In the following rabbinic passage, they are identified as angels who seek to defend Israel (See Rashi and Radak on this verse): “What do they say? Rava bar Rav Shila said: [They say:] ‘You will arise and have compassion upon Zion.’ (Psalms 102:14) Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said: [They say:] ‘The Lord is the builder of Jerusalem.’ (Psalms 147:2) And what did they say before this (the destruction of Jerusalem)? Rava bar R. Shila said: [They used to say:] ‘For God has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation.’ (Psalms 132:13)” (Menahot 87a) Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra presented a third position: “This is an allusion to the ‘Mourners of Zion’ who busy themselves with weeping, and do not sleep at night, like the watchmen of the wall.”
In these interpretations, we see three different perspectives on the Jewish search for equanimity and strength in the face of adversity: the first finds solace and strength in its connection to the great Jewish heritage of the past while the third finds it in the shared sense of facing adversity as a unified people. The Talmudic sages in the second passage, however, look toward asking God’s help in shaping the present. In some sense, our survival as a religious community requires an amalgam of all three.
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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