Parshat Ki Tetzei
September 6, 2003
The haftarah opens with a barren woman being urged to sing out her joy over her newly found bounty. Her children will be so plentiful that she will have to enlarge her home to accommodate them: “For you shall spread out to the right and the left (yamin usmal tifrotzi), your offspring shall dispossess nations and shall people the desolate towns.” (Isaiah 54:3) The imagery in this passage is meant to represent either the people of Israel or the land of Israel, both who have suffered after the destruction of the First Temple. Isaiah prophesies that the people of the nation will return from exile. The nation will expand and flourish.
The first part of this verse opens the 7th stanza of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabez’s famous 16th century Shabbat hymn, “Lecha Dodi” – “For you shall spread out right and left, and you shall extol the might of God; Through the man descended from Peretz [from the house of David]; Then we shall be glad and rejoice.” It is obvious from this passage that Alkabez intends for this verse to be understood as a promise of redemption but since its context has changed, obviously it must be understood differently from its original meaning. In a recently published book, “Lecha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat” (pp. 82-84 Hebrew), Professor Reuven Kimelman contends that Alkabez intended that the reader/prayer have, at least, four different interpretations at his/her disposal.
The first interpretation relates this verse to the Jewish people. It asserts that the redemptive process will cause the Jewish people to spread throughout the world to bring God’s word through the observance of Shabbat (see Babylonian Talmud 118 a-b). The second interpretation is geographic in nature. It asserts that the land of Israel will burst forth and expand to contain the entire world in order to spread forth God’s message (see Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 20:7).
The third interpretation deals with the redemption of time. Shabbat is considered ideal time. The mystical desire is that all time be Shabbat. Shabbat being the focal point in this world view, it is considered the middle of the week instead of the end of the week – Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are the days leading up to Shabbat; Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are the days following Shabbat. In this interpretation, our wish is that the Shabbat burst forth and conquer the time which precedes it and the time which follows it. This is the mystical interpretation of why we begin Shabbat before sundown on Friday and end it well after sundown on Saturday. We therefore do our small part in making this redemptive ideal come true. (see Kimelman, p.84)
The fourth interpretation sees in these words the ultimate unification of God through the ultimate unification of all nations believing in God. The united belief in God should burst forth throughout the world bring about God’s true oneness.
These many facets of interpretation make the “Lecha Dodi” into a prayer meant to change the world. Each of us has a role to play in this story.
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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