Haftarah Parshat Shoftim (Isaiah 51:12-52:12)
August 22, 2015 / 7 Elul 5775
This week’s haftarah is the fourth of the seven haftarot of consolation (Shiva d’nehamta) which follow Tisha b’Av. Its message of consolation sought to encourage the prophet’s people who had grown desperate over the possibility that perhaps their redemption from Babylonian exile would remain elusive. In one of the verses of the prophecy, God reminds them that: “I (God) have put My words (devarai) in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand.” (51:16)
What was the content of God’s word? From the context of the prophecy, God’s words of encouragement to His people were intended to inspire His people to believe in the reality of the redemption. One rabbinic sage, however, offered an alternative interpretive reading of this verse based on the indeterminate nature of the word “devarai – My words”: “’I have put My words in your mouth’ – [with regard to this] the Mishnah (Avot 1:2) teaches: Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say that the world stands (endures) on account of three things: Torah, divine service (the sacrificial order) and acts of loving kindness” (based on Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 19:5 Mandelbaum ed. p. 308)
What might have prompted the author of this midrash to make this clearly anachronistic association? On a technical level, the sages often sought to concretize scriptural references which seemed to them to be indefinite or undefined. In this case, he slipped a Mishnah from Pirke Avot into the prophet’s mouth. On a religious level, the answer seems to me obvious. This sage wanted God’s words to contain a formula for what he thought were the essential elements necessary for establishing a redeemed world. He chose three things (note here a little bit of basic science: a base made of three legs – a tripod – represents stability): Torah, worship of God and acts of lovingkindness.
The message here is basic. God has planted in us the ability to act as His agents for redeeming the world. The source of the blessing is in His inspiration to carry out His will in the world. In other words, redemption is not just something to yearn for or even to pray for. Redemption is something to act upon. If we take this message seriously there will never be room for despair. What could be a more Jewish message than that?
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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