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Haftarah Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeleh

Haftarah Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeleh 61:10-63:9)
September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul 5774

Not all biblical verses are easily understood. As a result, there sometimes arose variant traditions of how to read certain difficult verses. The last verse of this week’s haftarah offers just such an example. There are two traditions of how to read the last verse (63:9) of this week’s haftarah.

According to the “ktiv” or written tradition of the Tanach, the third word of this verse is written “lamed alef” meaning “no”, rendering the verse to mean: “In all their troubles He is not (lamed alef) troubled, and the angel of His Presence delivered them. In His love and pity He Himself delivered.” This version might render the first segment of this verse to mean that God has no sympathy for His people when they suffer. This idea, in itself, is problematic enough, but also contradicts the later part of the verse which has God redeeming His people. The “kri” or read tradition, however, reads this word as if it was spelled “lamed vav”, meaning “to him”. Consequently, the verse would be understood as: “In all their troubles to Him there was trouble, and the angel of His Presence delivered them. In His love and pity He Himself delivered.” According to this reading, God commiserates with His people in their suffering.

Which interpretation is right? The Talmud expresses the problem this way: “But let him see how the word ‘lo’ is spelled. If it is written with a lamed and an aleph then it means ‘not’, and if with ‘lamed’ and ‘vav’ then it means ‘for Him’! [The Talmud retorts:] But doesn’t it mean ‘not’ wherever the spelling is lamed and aleph? And if so, how can that apply to [our verse] which would mean: In all their troubles there was no trouble to Him?And should you say that that is exactly what the verse means, [that is not possible since the verse] continues: ‘And the angel of His presence saved them!’ [Rather we must say that] sometimes it has one meaning and at other times the other meaning. (Sotah 31a) This Talmudic debate makes clear the difficulties found in this verse. The “kri” reading rescues the verse from what the tradition thought was an untenable reading. The tradition could not bear to think that God lacked empathy for His people.

Difficult readings are not born in a vacuum. A modern commentator, Professor H. L. Ginsberg offered an emended reading of this verse which notes the problems which might have led to the debate over the ‘ktiv’ and the ‘kri’ traditions. He reads the beginning of this verse together with the end of the preceding verse (63:8): “So He (God) was their deliverer. In all their troubles, no (according the ktiv) angel or messenger (read ‘tzir’ instead of ‘’tzar’),[rather,] His (God’s) own Presence delivered them.” (See NJPS translation notes on verse.) According to this interpretation, this verse was mean to give notice that God alone was His people’s redeemer without the use of any intercessors. (Shalom Paul, Isaiah 40-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 521)

This debate points up an important Jewish message. The Jewish tradition cannot abide the idea that God might not have concern for His creatures. It wants us to know of God’s intimate concern. As we approach the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe, where we contemplate our fates for the coming year, this is an idea brings us great solace.

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.

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