Haftarah Parshat Noah – Shabbat Rosh Hodesh (Isaiah 66:1-24)
October 21, 2017 / Rosh Hodesh Heshvan 5778
At the opening of this special haftarah for Rosh Hodesh, the prophet asks a rhetorical question: “Thus said the Lord: ‘The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where could you build a house for Me? What place could serve as My abode? All this was made by My hand and thus it came into being’, declared the Lord.” (66:1-2)
What is implied in this statement? The prophet questions whether building a house for God is appropriate. The reason for having a house for God was to give people a concrete point of access to God, but this human necessity also created a religious problem. After all, how can the created world contain its Creator? It is not difficult to discern how building a house to “contain” God might lead some to draw false conclusions about God. If God indeed lives in “His” house, then one could draw the conclusion that His influence might be limited to His house, leaving the miscreant to assume that it is possible to operate outside God’s reach. In other words, one could sin outside of “God’s house” and get away with it. Such thoughts led the prophet to decry the need for building a house for God and to forcefully assert God’s power over the wayward who thought to take advantage of this theological loophole: “As for those who slaughter oxen [as sacrifices] and slay humans, who sacrifice sheep [inside the Temple] and immolate dogs [as an idolatrous practice] …” (66:3) God reminds his “followers”, in this case the wayward priesthood, that they should not be misled into thinking that God dwells as a prisoner in a house built for Him.
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) states the problem this way: “Like Solomon said: ‘Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You (God), how much less this house which I have built’ (1 Kings 8:27) – for I have not commanded regarding this house that I should dwell in it nor regarding the sacrifices that I should consume them; I commanded [them] only in order for Israel to incline their hearts toward Me (God) and so that there should be a special place to pray to Me and makes offerings, to awaken their hearts and to eradicate evil thoughts… if so when you do evil and then come to My house and sacrifice before Me, you have lost the proper intention – and this is My (God’s) mitzvah and you do not fulfill My will, rather the opposite – You anger Me.’”
Kimche suggests that the people abused an institution intended for their benefit. The purpose of the Temple was to facilitate intimacy with God in a manner which was “friendly” for human beings. It was not meant as a means of limiting God’s reach. Isaiah reminds us to be discerning and conscientious when we think about God so as not to allow ourselves to be misled.
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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