Haftarah Parshat Shoftim
August 10, 2002
There are verses in the Tanach (Bible) that, despite the best efforts of scholars, remain enigmatic. One such verse appears in our haftarah. Not only are the words of this verse difficult, but it is also hard to know who the verse is talking about. Consequently, the interpretations of this verse vary radically. In the New Jewish Publication Society English translation, this verse reads: “Quickly the crouching one is freed (l’hepateach). He is not cut down and slain and he shall not want for food. (Isaiah 51:14) In this translation, the verse refers to the people of Israel, whose consolation is that they are now free of the torment of their adversaries and will not be left wanting for food. Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation, explains this verse: The adversary (the enemies of Israel) will soon be exiled. The righteous will not die nor will they lack food. Radak, the 12th century Provencal commentator, interprets this verse to mean that the people of Israel will move from place to place in exile so that their enemies will be unable to harm them. These commentaries are just a few of many different interpretations.
Rashi’s interpretation is unique. According to Rashi, the enemies of Israel will no longer be a threat to the people of Israel because “their bodily functions are difficult; their bowels are constantly open (l’hepateach) and as a result they need much food or they will die.” Consequently, they will not have time to harm the people of Israel.
There are times when an obscure verse or interpretation can prove truly inspiring. The interpretation recorded by Rashi may have served as the inspiration for the blessing of thanksgiving that is offered to God after relieving oneself, known as “asher yatzar.” (see Rabbi Amos Hacham- Daat Hamikra) The rabbis turned the negative imagery of Isaiah into an acknowledgment of the marvels of the human body. In this blessing we thank God that the organs of our bodies work properly: “Praised be You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure and intricate in design. Should but one of them be blocked or opened (im y’pateach), fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praise are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in miraculous ways.” (see Berachot 60b; Siddur Sim Shalom, p.6)
The sages wanted to make us cognizant that physical well-being should not be taken for granted. It is not something to be ignored nor something for which we should be ungrateful. This is perhaps why they assigned a blessing over the most “earthy” activity that human beings perform. The constancy of the performance of this action and its subsequent blessing are but one of a series of human activities for which the rabbis ordained blessings in order to sanctify human life and give us the ability to use our physical nature to transcend our animal selves.
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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