Haftarah Parshat Shemot
(Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23)
December 25, 2010
18 Tevet 5771
The haftarah opens with a message of hope for the future. God promises that even though the nation will suffer hard times as punishment for its sins, its afflictions will be measured and not extreme. Moreover, God will save the nation of Israel, restore it to its own land and make it exceedingly fruitful: \”[In days] to come Jacob shall strike root, Israel shall sprout (yatzitz) and blossom (u\’farah), and the face of the world shall be covered with fruit.\” (verse 6)
This verse also provided the reason for associating this haftarah with the exodus from Egypt since there was a tradition that this verse referred not to some future redemption but to the exodus from Egypt itself as a reference for the future. (See Rashi; A. Hacham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 378, note 46b.)
Another rabbinic tradition took this verse in a totally different direction in order to decide a debate over the intellectual prowess of the sages of Babylonia: Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba and Rabbi Assi were sitting before Rabbi Johanan, while Rabbi Johanan was sitting and dozing. Now, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba asked Rabbi Assi, \”Why do the sages in Babylonia [dress] distinctively?\” [He answered him:] \”Because they are not very learned [and consequently enhance their status through distinguished clothing].\” Rabbi Johanan awoke [and] said to them, \”Children! Didn\’t I teach you [the verse]: \’Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister\’ (Proverbs 7:4): if the matter is as clear to you as that [the knowledge that] your sister is forbidden to you, say it; but if not, [be wise enough] not to say it?\” They said to him: \”[Then] tell us, master. Why do the scholars of Babylonia dress distinctively?\” \”Because they are not in their [original] homes (since they are now in Babylonian exile), as people say: \”In my own town my name [is sufficient]; away from home, the way I dress indicates my status.\” [The following verse illustrates this:] \”In days to come, Jacob shall strike root, Israel shall blossom [yatzitz] and bud [ufarah].\” Rabbi Joseph taught: This [verse] refers to scholars in Babylonia who adorn the Torah with blossoms [tzitzin] and flowers [perahim], [namely, they adorn it with beautiful interpretations]. (abridged from Shabbat 145b)
In this vignette, Rabbi Johanan\’s colleagues in Eretz Yisrael seemingly have a low opinion of the sages in Babylonia. Rabbi Johanan, among the most important sages in Eretz Yisrael in Talmudic times, castigates his follow sages and defends the learning of the Babylonian sages. Rabbi Joseph\’s interpretation is brought to support Rabbi Johanan. In it, he understands the verse from our haftarah as a reference to the sages of Babylonia who took root in their new Babylonian homes and caused Torah study to flourish even there. Ultimately, this interpretation transforms the sages into agents of a divine redemption of a different sort. It is not the physical redemption talked about in the first two interpretations; rather, it is a spiritual redemption. God is wherever there is Torah study. When the sages of Babylonia brought Torah study there, they began the process of redemption. This transformation can happen anywhere. As Hillel said: \”zil gmor – go and learn\”. (See Shabbat 31a)
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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