Haftarah Parshat Shmot
(Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23)
December 28, 2002
The prophetic mission was often a difficult one. The prophet was, at once, both an insider and an outsider – loyal to the members of his community but also a critic, standing apart from that same community. He was profoundly aware of the failings of his brethren and attempted to persuade them to part with the attitudes and behaviors which alienated them from God. This task was fraught with danger since, as a critic, the prophet was bound to rankle those who were comfortable in their ways, raising their rancor and displeasure.
Such was the incredulous moral state which faced Isaiah: “But these are also muddled by wine and dazed by liquor: priest and prophet are muddled by liquor; they are confused by wine and dazed by liquor; they are muddled in their visions and stumble in judgment. Yea, all of the tables are covered with vomit and filth so that no space is left.” (Isaiah 28:7-8)
Under these circumstances, where the people had given themselves over entirely to self indulgence, is it a wonder that the people not only ignored Isaiah’s message but also mocked it?: “To whom will he [Isaiah] give instruction? To whom expound a message? To those newly weaned from milk, just taken away from the breast? They that mutter upon mutter (tzav l’tzav), murmur upon murmur (kav l’kav), now here, now there (z’eir sham z’eir sham)” (verses 9-10)
The sequence and meaning of these verses is difficult, but what is clear is that the “muttering” and the “murmuring” are meant to be a parody of Isaiah’s prophetic message by those who scorn it. The word “tzav” means “commandment” and the word “kav” means “measure” but here these two words are treated as if they are the babbling of children, not meant to pay any heed. Joseph Kara, the 11th century French commentator, offers one possible explanation: “When the prophet commands them, saying: ‘To this commandment (tzav) listen and obey.’ They respond: ‘Before you command us to do this commandment [mimicking the prophet], comply with it yourself and fulfill it.’ When the prophet tells them: ‘By this measure (kav) you will be measured.’ They again copy his words and say: ‘They will also measure you by this measure.’ This behavior was just a childish act of self indulgence where the people’s focus on their own petty needs caused them to ignore Isaiah’s important message. This situation was painful for Isaiah as a prophet but the people suffered the more serious consequences.
The narcissistic overemphasis on self whether it be through alcohol, sex, money, material things or power creates a barrier between people and God. It also impedes their ability to have serious relationships with others and ironically and perhaps most tragically, it ultimately make it impossible for them to ever really know themselves.
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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