Haftarah Parshat Shoftim
August 14, 2010
4 Elul 5770
Haftarah Commentary for Parshat Shoftim (Isaiah 51:12-52:12)
This week\’s haftarah is the fourth in a series of seven special haftarot marking the period between Tisha b\’Av and Rosh Hashanah. These haftarot are intended to bring a message of solace and hope to a people burdened by the destruction of its religious center, Jerusalem. The prophet enjoins the people to be strong because God is with them. He has given them a mission to carry His word and has promised them his protection: \”I have put My word in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!\” (51:16)
Rabbi David Kimchi (12th century Provence) understands this verse to mean that God has put the message of hope into the mouths of the people, namely, the people will be made aware that they are safe and are truly God\’s people. It seems to me that Kimche has identified the pshat or plain meaning of the verse.
A much earlier sage, from the period of the Talmud, however, read this verse in light of a teaching of Shimon the righteous from Mishnah Avot (1:2) who taught: The world stands on account of three things: on the Torah, on the [Temple] service and on acts of loving-kindness. As a consequence, he understood this verse as a conditional mission statement: if you do the things alluded to in the verse mentioned above (as seen through the prism of the interpreter), then you and those who heed your deeds will merit God\’s protection and loving-kindness: Rabbi Yehoshua of Siknin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: [The words] \’I have put My words in your mouth\’ refers to the words of Torah. [The words]; \’And sheltered you with My hand\’ refers to acts of loving-kindness. The first part of this verse comes to teach that all who engage in Torah study and acts of loving-kindness merit refuge in the shadow of God. [The verse continues:] \’I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth\’ – this refers to the Temple offerings. [Isaiah continues:] \'[I (God)] have said to Zion: You are My people.\’ Rabbi Hanina bar Papa commented: \’I have searched all of Scripture and nowhere else have I found that the people of Israel are called \’Zion\’ [which can also have the meaning of \’different\’ or \’distinguished\”] except here where it says: \’Zion, you are My people.\’\” (adapted from Pesikta d\”Rav Kahana 19:6 Mandelbaum ed. p. 308)
Whereas, the original message of the prophet was one of security and comfort, Rabbi Levi wanted his audience to appreciate that redemption requires human involvement in the process. What makes the Jews distinctive (Zion) and worthy of redemption, according to this midrash? It is the Jewish commitment to Torah, to service to God and to acts of loving-kindness that can and will make all the difference.
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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