Haftarah Parshat Reeh
August 27, 2011
27 Av 5771
Parshat Reeh (Isaiah 54:11-55:5)
The second prophecy in this week’s haftarah opens with an invitation to the listener to come quench both his or her hunger and thirst at a free banquet: “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. Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread, your earnings for what does not satisfy? Give heed to Me (God), and you shall eat choice food and enjoy the richest viands.”(55:1-2)
This message was probably intended to be understood in two different ways. First, it was meant as an invitation to be loyal to God and His redemptive powers. If you follow God and do not go astray you will be provided for with God’s bounty. However this verse also bears an amazing resemblance to a verse in the book of Proverbs in which the personified “wisdom” invites its followers to a feast: “Come, eat my food and drink the wine that I have mixed.” (9:5) (See S. Paul, Isaiah 49-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 392-3) It is likely, then, that the listener to the prophecy from Isaiah was meant to understand the prophet’s message as a call to feast on God’s wisdom, namely, Torah.
This is most certainly how the rabbinic tradition understood this verse. In the Talmud, the opening verse of this prophecy served as part of the proof for the authenticity of the practice of reading from the Torah liturgically every three days: “[An early tradition records that Ezra decreed] that [the Torah] be read [publicly] on Mondays and Thursdays.\’ [The Talmud challenges:] But was this ordained by Ezra? Was this not ordained even before him? For it was taught: ‘And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water’ (Exodus 15:22), upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: water means nothing but Torah, as it says: ‘Ho, all who are thirsty come for water’ (Isaiah 55:1). It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted. The prophets among them thereupon rose and enacted that they should publicly read the law on Sabbath, make a break on Sunday, read again on Monday, make a break again on Tuesday and Wednesday, read again on Thursday and then make a break on Friday so that they should not be kept for three days without Torah.\’
[If the reading of the Torah every three days was already established, then what was Ezra’s innovation?] Originally it was ordained that one man should read three verses or that three men should together read three verses, corresponding to priests, Levites and Israelites. Then Ezra came and ordained that three men should be called up to read, and that ten verses should be read, corresponding to ten batlanim (people who had communal responsibility) . (Baba Kama 82a)
This passage teaches us at least two things. The sages understood the Torah as a life giving source for the Jew – a source of wisdom without which a Jew could not live and thrive. As a consequence, its public reading was established so that its wisdom would be open to all. This practice was given the imprimatur of being an ancient practice dating back to the very beginnings of the Jewish people so that all would be aware that from the very beginning of the Jewish people, the Torah was the very water, bread and milk upon which a Jew subsists!
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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