Haftarah Parshat Shoftim
September 3, 2011
4 Elul 5771
The Torah was revealed dramatically on Mount Sinai (Horeb). Since that time Sinai has faded into the background. When a troubled prophet, Elijah, sought a prophecy there, he may have assumed that his prophecy would be as dramatic as that of the receiving of the Torah, but when it came, it was a “still, small voice”. Since that time, the physical place of Sinai has been lost, never to be reclaimed, but at some juncture in biblical times Sinai was replaced in significance by Mount Zion in Jerusalem. It became the place where God communicated with His people and for the Jews, the sacred center of the world. Mount Zion was identified with Mount Moriah, the place where the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) occurred and ultimately where the Holy Temples were built. This identification was more than worldly; it was cosmic in the same way that Sinai was cosmic, above and beyond time, where God’s power entered into the world. The city of Jerusalem assimilated the identity of the holy mountain as did the entire land of Israel.
Finally, God’s chosen people also became identified with the holy mountain, as we note when God addresses the people in this week’s haftarah: “I have put My words in your mouth and in the shelter of My hand I have kept you safe, that you might fix the heavens and the earth and say to Zion: ‘You are My people’. (51:16) As J. D. Levenson asserts: “the people of Israel have been identified with the Temple mount, the restoration of one goes hand in hand with the other. The divine choice of the Israelites is more than a fact of history in this oracle from the exilic period. It is a cosmic reality, as fundamental as the establishment in their proper places of heaven and earth. By virtue of Zion, Israel has become the cosmic people.” (Sinai and Zion: An entry into the Jewish Bible, p. 137 in particular)
The prophet, who lived during the period of the Babylonian exile, associated the redemption of the people from Babylonian exile with the reestablishment of the sacred center. The world would not be right until both of these conditions were meant. Some rabbinic sages, perhaps because this geo-political reality did not seem realistic to them, interpreted this cosmic association between the people Israel and Zion in a different way: “On account of Zion (Israel), the world was created, as it is written: ‘that you might fix the heavens and the earth and say to Zion: ‘You are My people’” (Tanhuma Buber Bereshit 10) This midrash places awesome responsibility in the hands of the Jewish people. It asserts that the fate of the world stands in balance and depends on the people of Israel and what it does. This is a tremendous responsibility but it is also a gift. Judaism is not a religion which asks people to shirk responsibility. Its greatest message is that to serve God requires taking responsibility for life and service and not to avoid it. Perhaps this is truly the key to redemption.
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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