August 26, 2006
The earliest evidence in our hands of fixed haftarot for certain Shabbatot comes to us from a collection of midrash know as Pesikta de Rav Kahana. This midrashic compilation, from the Talmudic period in Eretz Yisrael (4-5th century), differs from other midrashim in that it is not organized as an interpretation of a particular book of the Bible. Its chapters are, instead, organized around special Torah and haftarah reading on the liturgical calendar. Among these special readings are found the haftarot for the three weeks preceding Tisha b\’Av and the seven weeks after this tragic day. This makes these haftarot the oldest recorded haftarot still a part of the liturgical calendar.
We are used to studying selections from the midrashic tradition – midrash reflecting certain ideas or interpretations of particular pieces of Scripture which interest us, but it is worth noting that midrashic compilations like Pesikta de Rav Kahanah were not just arbitrary collections of all of the material available at the time on a given verse or even anthologies on given books of the Bible, rather they are literary works which were actually composed. This means that chapters of any given midrash have a literary structure and that the parts of each chapter have literary purpose. I present you with this brief introduction because the following midrash is found in the chapter of the Pesikta for this week\’s haftarah even though there does not seem to be any direct textual linkage.
I bring it to you because it beautifully captures an important aspect of Jewish existence and the compiler of the Pesikta apparently thought it to be thematically linked to this week\’s haftarah: \”Rabbi Aba bar Kahana in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: \’This can be compared to the case of a king who betrothed a noble lady and wrote for her in her ketuba a sizable pledge: \’So and so many marriage canopies I shall prepare for you, so and so many ornaments I shall provide for you, and many treasures I will give to you.\’ The king then left the woman and she waited there for many years. Her friends continually made fun of her, saying, \’How long are you going to sit? Get yourself a husband while you are still young and vigorous. [What did she do?] She went into the house and took out her ketubah and read it and found comfort. After a long while, the king finally returned from overseas. He said to her: \’My daughter, I am amazed at how you have had faith in me all these years.\’ She said to him: \’My lord, king, were it not for the substantial ketubah that you wrote out for me, my friends would have made you lose me.\’
So too, since in this world, the nations of the world mock Israel, saying to them: How long will you be put to death for the sake of your God and give your lives for Him? How much pain does He bring on you? How much embarrassment and pain does He bring on you? Come, become like us and we will make you dukes and governors and generals. When the Israelites hear these things, they go into their synagogues and study houses and take out their Torahs and read: \’And I [God] shall walk in your midst, and I shall make you prosper, and I shall make you numerous, and I shall carry out my covenant with you.\’ (Lev. 26:9) and they are comforted.
When the end will come, God will say to Israel: \’I am surprised at how you waited for Me all these years.\’ And Israel will reply: \’Master of the world, if it were not for Your Torah, that You wrote for us, the nations would have drawn us away from You\’, as it is written: \’I recall to mind therefore I have hope.\’ (Lam. 3:21) David also said: \’If your Torah had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.\’ (Psalm 119:92) (Adapted from Pesikta de Rav Kahana 19:4 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 305-6)
I think this Midrash speaks for itself!
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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