Haftarah Parshat Shemini
March 22, 2014
20 AdarII 5774
This Shabbat, Shabbat Parah, is the third of four special Shabbatot which precede Pesah. On this Shabbat, the maftir reading from the second Torah relates the rite of the ‘red heifer’, which when burnt, produced ashes used in the act of ritual purification. In the haftarah for this Shabbat, we read of the nation’s spiritual impurity and the nation’s consequent exile. One particular verse describes the onerous effect of this exile on God: “But when they came (vayavo) to those nations, they caused My holy name to be profaned (vayihallilu) in that it was said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave the land.’ (36:20) The ideas expressed in this verse are difficult but the verse itself also has a textual problem (which would not be noticed in the English translation). The first verb is expressed in the singular “came” (vayavo) while the second verb “profaned” (vayihallilu) is expressed in the plural. According to the “peshat” or plain meaning of the text, both refer to the people of Israel as is indicated in the translation. (See R. Kasher, Ezekiel, Mikra L’Yisrael, p.702)
Still, this textual anomaly opened the doors to creative interpretations, as can be seen in the following midrash: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: It is written: ‘It is honorable for a man to desist from a quarrel.’ (Proverbs 20:3) Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘It would have more honorable for me, if I had not had a dispute with the people of Israel.’ You find that when Israel was exiled among the nations, God made the rounds of the peoples [where they were exiled] to hear what they were saying. And what were they saying? ‘The God of this people punished Pharaoh, Sisera, Sennacherib, and others like them.’ They went on to say, ‘And shall He always be young [that he can do battle with their enemies]?’ If it is possible so to express oneself, their words made God out to be old and incapable of redeeming them.]; and so it is written: ‘And when God came (vayavo) to those nations, they (the children of Israel) profaned My holy name (Ezekiel 36:20). The text should have read ‘they came ‘, but it reads ‘and He came’. The meaning, if one may so express oneself, is [therefore] God Himself; hence it is written, ’And when He came unto the nations.’ And what were they saying? ‘If these are the people of the Lord, why are they gone forth out of His land?’ (adapted from Eicha Rabbah Petihot 15, Buber ed. p. 13)
Both in Ezekiel’s prophecy and in this midrash, God is very concerned with His reputation. The midrash has God having second thoughts on whether to confront them regarding their sins since ultimately the real loser in His quarrel with them will be Himself. Since this little story is aimed at a human audience, its message is clear. It would have us avoid situations where we might be God’s adversaries. This means obviously leading the sorts of lives which would build God’s world rather than destroy it and where we would be advocates for His will rather than adversaries, where we would represent God positively to the world. In this way, God could be “forever young”.
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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