Haftarah Parshat KI Tetze
August 17, 2002
At the end of this week’s haftarah, God comforts the people of Israel after their return from exile with this promise: “These days (kimei) recall for me the days of Noah: as I swore that the waters of Noah’s flood should never again pour over the earth, so now I swear to you never again to be angry with you or reproach you.” (Isaiah 54:9) Radak, the 12th century Provencal commentator, offers two interesting interpretations of Isaiah’s message. He notes that this verse was meant as a promise that God will no longer bring a global catastrophe upon the people of the earth. In another possible interpretation, he posits that this verse might be a metaphor meaning that the exile of the people of Israel, represented by the flood, was meant to be the last exile and like the flood in the days of Noah, would no longer serve as a punishment for the people of Israel.
Unlike Radak, who attempts to explain this verse within its original context, the following midrash removes this verse from the context of Isaiah’s prophecy and places it in the mouth of Abraham, in his challenge to God over the fate of the wicked people of Sodom. This midrashic technique was viewed as perfectly legitimate by the sages since the entire Bible was understood as the timeless revelation of God.
“And who is the most merciful among the patriarchs? Rabbi Azariah said in the name of Rabbi Aha: ‘This is our father Abraham.’ You find that before the Holy One blessed be He brought the flood on the Sodomites, our father Abraham said before the Holy One Blessed be He: Master of the universe, You have sworn that You would never gain bring a flood to the world. For it says: ‘These days recall for me the days of Noah, as I swore that the waters of Noah’s flood should never again pour over the earth, so now I swear to you never again to be angry with you or reproach you.’ Assuredly, you are not going to bring a flood of water, but are you going to bring a flood of fire? Are You now going to act evasively against the intent of Your oath? (adapted from Pesikta deRav Kahana Parshat Anochi, 3)
What is the thrust of Abraham’s argument? He argues that God has made a promise which He is now abrogating through a legal technicality. Abraham points out to God that it is not legitimate to understand the word “flood” to refer exclusively to “floods of water.” Instead this word should also include “floods of fire.” This argument was meant to serve as another powerful argument on the part of Abraham to forestall God’s judgment against Sodom. Despite the fact that Abraham’s pleas were ultimately unable to sway God’s decree, his role as an advocate for divine mercy is still central to his position as the founder of our faith. This is a role ultimately emulated by Moses. It is a quality which all of us should also bear in mind.