Haftarah Parshat Shoftim (Isaiah 51:12-52:12)
September 10, 2016 / 7 Elul 5776
Many of the classical prayers of our liturgy assume a basic level of biblical literacy in order to appreciate both their beauty and their message. (Incidentally, the same is true of much of the great literature of the Western World.) The Shabbat Hymn, Lecha Dodi, is a case in point. It uses a great many biblical verses and allusions, among them a number from this week’s haftarah. Most of the time, the author, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (Safed 16th century), snips a phrase from here and another from there, combining them with other verses to build his new creation. The author assumes that the person praying this beautiful hymn will have the tools to apply the verse’s original meaning of the to its new context.
The first three words of the verse, “Hitnaari mei’afar kumi… – Arise, shake off the dust, sit [on your throne, Jerusalem! Loose the bonds on your neck, fair Zion!” (Isaiah 52:2) form the opening words of the third stanza: “Shake yourself off, arise from the dust! Put on your clothes of glory My people; Through the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, draw near to my soul and redeem it.” (Koren Sacks’ Siddur, p. 320) The verse in its original context speaks to the returning Babylonian exiles, urging them to shake of the dust of exile so that they may renew their lives in their homeland. Alkabetz spiritualizes this preparation for return, calling upon the worshiper and God to prepare the people so that they will be prepared for the ultimate redemption from exile, both spiritual and physical.
The fourth stanza uses as its jumping off point a verse from the previous chapter in Isaiah: “Hitoreree, hitoreree – Wake up, wake up! Arise, O Jerusalem, you who have drained to the dregs the bowl of staggering (poison).” (51:17) Here, Alkabetz uses only the first two words of the verse to express his message: “Wake up, wake up, for your light has come: Rise, shine! Awake, awake, break out in song, for the Lord’s glory is revealed on you.” (Siddur, p. 320) Again, the image taken from Isaiah is one of the end of an exile where Israel has born upon its shoulders sufficient punishment in Babylonia. It is now time for the return home to Jerusalem and redemption. Alakabetz, whose family has experienced exile from Spain, is also living a return from exile and with it an awakening and, in return, exuberant song.
All of this makes the Lecha Dodi into more than a mere hymn for Shabbat. It is a song of redemption and renewal from the challenges of exile on a personal level, and on a national level – a song of redemption in time on a given Shabbat, a rapprochement with God, but also a call for the end of exile, a return home both physically and spiritually to a people weary of exile.