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Shoftim 5767

Parshat Shoftim
(Isaiah 51:12-52:12)
4 Elul 5767
August 18, 2007

This Shabbat marks the fourth of the seven special Shabbatot which follow Tisha b\’Av, the day when we mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples. For each of these Shabbatot, the haftarah was chosen because, at least in part, its message is one of consolation. This week\’s haftarah has a number of prophecies that have this theme in mind, among them a prophecy which notes that the redemption will come at very little expense to those whom God redeems: \”For thus said the Lord: \’You were sold for no price, and shall be redeemed for no money.\’ For thus said the Lord God: \’Of old, My people went down to Egypt to sojourn there; But Assyria has robbed them, giving nothing in return. (Namely, Assyria has exiled them by force.) What therefore do I gain here (in exile)?\’ – declares the Lord. \’For My people has been carried off for nothing, their mockers howl\’ – declares the Lord. \’And constantly and unceasingly My name is reviled. Assuredly My people shall learn My name. Assuredly [they shall learn] on that day that I, the One who promised, am now at hand.\’\” (NJPS 52:3-5)

A. Hakham, a contemporary Israeli commentator, interprets this prophecy to be a positive message. He asserts that it means that just as the Assyrians took you (the people of Israel) as slaves from your true Master (God) without paying a ransom, so, too, you will be redeemed without having to pay a price. He notes that this prophecy may have a promise to the people that they would not have to make payment in order to release themselves so that they might return to their homeland. Rather, God will insure their release. (Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 561)

Still, this verse could be read as if the prophecy is speaking of punishments and redemption happening without cause and effort. Such an idea seems to have disturbed at least some of the sages who reacted by interpreting this verse otherwise: \”Rabbi Joshua said to him, But is it not written, \’you have sold yourselves for no price; and you shall be redeemed without money?\’ [Interpret the verse instead this way:] \’You have sold yourselves for no price\’, refers to idolatry (i.e. something worthless) and \’you shall be redeemed without money\’ — without repentance and good deeds (something of worth).\” (Sanhedrin 96b) Rabbi Joshua could fathom God showing mercy and redeeming the people even though their behavior did not warrant it, but he could not fathom unjustified punishment. This led him to read this verse metaphorically. Rashi and others adopted variations on this interpretation.

Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (15th century Spain) took issue with this interpretation, noting that it veered from the plain meaning of the text. Instead, he offered two alternative interpretations: 1. It may mean that they were so sinful that they were given away without taking a fee, just to be rid of them. God took them back \’without money\’, that is to say, without repentance because He realized that sufficient repentance would never come; 2. Since their exile will be for a very extended period of time, when they are redeemed they will be without possessions.

What remains clear in all of these permutations is that God\’s power to redeem us overcomes all obstacles no matter whether they are brought on by outside forces or our own obstinacy. In either case, God will remain a force in our personal and national redemption.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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