Haftarah Parshat Shoftim
August 25, 2012
7 Elul 5772
The messages of the prophets sometimes seem startlingly contemporary. This Shabbat we read the fourth of seven prophetic messages of consolation (Shiva d’nehamta) which follow after Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem twice, the loss of our national homeland and exile (again twice). The prophet’s message is one of consolation with an admixture of admonishment over the people’s constant insecurity and fear of real and imagined enemies. This was a relevant message because the later chapters of the book of Isaiah were composed for those who had just returned from the Babylonian exile to a homeland which lacked security and prosperity. The opening lines of the prophecy are both comforting and haunting: “I am He who comforts you! What ails you that you fear man who will die, mortals who whither like grass? You have forgotten the Lord your Maker, who stretched out the skies and made firm the earth! And you live all day in constant dread because of the rage of the oppressor (hamat hameitzik) who is aiming to cut you down. Yet of what account is the rage of the oppressor?” (51:12-13)
The prophet intended even in his words of chastisement to assuage the people’s concerns. He wanted to convince them that no earthly threat could stand up to God. It is uncanny though that the same existential threats which preoccupied earlier generations still play a role in the lives of those living in the land today. (I will say more on this in a moment.)
The sages often liked to associate unidentified characters in Scripture with known characters. (Y. Heineman, Darchei Agaddah, p. 21) In the following midrash from 4th century Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Yitzhak attempts to explain Israel’s over abiding anxiety, identifying a major source of that anxiety in the process: “Said Rabbi Yitzhak: ‘[The reason for your anxiety is] that oppressive troubles come in quick succession, one after the other. And who is the oppressor (hamat hameitzik)? They are Haman and his helpers.” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 19:5 Mandelbaum ed. p. 308)
I found this particular midrash amusing on several counts. The identification of the “rage of the oppressor” with Haman brought to mind a certain contemporary Iranian (Persian) despot and his helpers who, of late, take great pleasure in aggravating the Jews in any way possible. The prophet’s message captures the major damage done by characters like Haman, Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah. These people understand the psychology of Jews even better than the Jews themselves. They know that the Jews feed on anxiety. They know that all you have to do to drive the Jews crazy is raise the specter of war and annihilation in order to destroy Jewish morale. Actions are often unnecessary.
The prophet reminds us, in this week’s haftarah, that life’s worst enemy is anxiety. God is our protection against fear. A person (or nation) must do what must be done with reason and without fear. It is the oppressor who will ultimately suffer the fate of Haman.
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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