September 20, 2003
This week’s haftarah is the last of the seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nehamta) and the last haftarah before Rosh Hashanah. The haftarah opens: “I greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being exalts in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of triumph; wrapped me in a robe of victory; like a bridegroom adorned with a crown; like a bride bedecked in her finery. For as the earth brings forth her growth and a garden makes the seed shoot up, so the Lord God will make victory and renown shoot up in the presence of all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:10-11 – according to NJPS translation) The speaker in this verse is identified as either the Jerusalem or the people of Israel. (see Targum Jonathan and Rashi) In this verse, Israel rejoices at the advent of the redemption, where the land is reunited with her people and God is reunited with Israel. This redemption would bring prosperity and growth, happiness and fecundity.
In the following midrash, it is understood that when the nations of the world see Israel’s blessings they too will rejoice along with her. [The midrash translates the end of verse 11: “God will cause righteousness and praise to rise up before the nations.] The midrash finds this odd and attempts to explain why the nations of the world should have reason to rejoice at Israel’s blessings with several anecdotes about our foremother Sarah: “Rabbi Yudan, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Hanin, Rabbi Samuel bar Rabbi Isaac: If Reuven is happy, what difference does it make to Shimon? So, too, if Sarah was remembered, what difference does it make to anyone else? For Sarah said: “Everyone who hears [that I will bear a child] will rejoice (literally: laugh) with me.” (Genesis 21:6) This comes to teach that when Sarah was remembered so too were other barren women. The deaf and the blind were cured as well. So were the physically impaired and the mentally impaired. People said: ‘If only Sarah would be remembered a second time, so that I might be remembered too!’ [In another anecdote, it is recounted:] Rabbi Berechiah related in the name of Rabbi Levi: You find that when Sarah bore Isaac, the people of the world scoffed and claimed that Sarah was not the mother of the baby, Heaven forbid, but rather that Hagar must be the mother. What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He dried up the breasts of all of woman of the world except for Sarah so that they were forced to implore Sarah to give suck to their children. Sarah, of course, sanctified God’s name and fed the infants. Isn’t it obvious that if people rejoice at the joy of a single individual since that person will bring joy to all, how much more so if God gives joy to Jerusalem! ‘I will greatly rejoice… so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all of the nations of the world.’ (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 22:1)
Coincidently, this 4th century midrash for the week before Rosh Hashanah focuses its message on the Babylonian Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah (also our Torah reading) which centers around the birth of Isaac to our foremother Sarah. We read this story because Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, when God remembers those who are in need. This midrash offers a number of valuable messages about this idea. Among its important messages is the idea that God means for us to share our blessings in order create an awareness of His presence in the world. When God remembers us, we must also help others to remember Him.