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Re\’eh 5770

Haftarah Parshat Reeh
(Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5)
August 7, 2010
27 Av 5770

Haftarah Commentary Parshat Reeh (Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5)

In this, the third of the seven special haftarot of consolation which follow Tisha b\’Av (shiva d\’nehamta), Isaiah beckons all who are \”thirsty\” for words of Torah to come and partake of its message: \”Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money; come buy food and eat: Buy food without money, wine and milk without cost.\” (55:1) The prophet uses water, wine and milk as metaphors for Torah to express to us that how crucial the Torah is for our existence since these three liquids were basic to life in the ancient world.

The Talmud proposes another explanation for the use of this metaphor: \”Why are the words of Torah compared to these three liquids? This is to teach you that just as these three liquids can only be preserved in the most inferior of vessels, so, too, the worlds of Torah endure only with him who is humble minded. This is illustrated by the story of the daughter of the Roman emperor who said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah: \’Such glorious wisdom in such a homely vessel!\’ [She said these discourteous words because Rabbi Yehoshua was not physically attractive.] He replied: \’Doesn\’t your father keep his wine in clay vessels?\’ She asked: \’Where else should he keep it?\’ \’Since you are royalty\’, he said to her, \’Perhaps you should keep it in vessels of gold or silver.\’ She went and told her father who then put all of his wine in vessels of gold and silver. All the wine became sour. When his servants told him, he asked his daughter who had given her this advice. She told him: \’Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah.\’ The emperor called him and asked him: \’Why did you advise my daughter to do this?\’ The rabbi answered: \’Because of what she said to me.\’ {The Talmud asks:] But aren\’t there handsome people who are learned? [The Talmud replies:] If they were ugly, they would be more learned.\’\” (Adapted from Taanit 7a-b)

The lessons of this story are multi-layered. Rabbi Yehoshua taught the princess a lesson in poetic justice. She insults him for being ugly. He teaches her that precious things are best preserved in lowly containers. This lesson presumably holds for Torah as well. The Talmud then extends this lesson one step further. Physical beauty is then likened to an arrogant spirit. The story teller wants us to learn that true wisdom is best preserved in those who are humble. Perhaps this is why the princess who is presumably both attractive and arrogant turns out to be so foolish.

Maimonides codifies the lessons of this story in these words: \”The words of Torah are not to be found in the vulgar or haughty but rather in the meek and modest.\” (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Talmud Torah 3:9)

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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