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Shoftim 5773

Haftarah Parshat Shoftim
(Isaiah 51:12-52:12)
August 10 2013
4 Elul 5773

In his notable book “Galut,” Professor Arnold Eisen asserts that in the prophetic tradition ‘exile’ or ‘galut’ is [almost] exclusively associated with divine displeasure. (p.32) This week’s haftarah, the fourth of the seven special haftarot of consolation (Shivah d’Nehamta) which follow after Tisha b’Av, offers an exception to this generalization: “(3) For thus said the Lord: You were sold for no price and shall be redeemed with no money. (4) 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. (5) What therefore do I (God) gain here (in exile), declares the Lord, for my people have been carried off for nothing. Their mockers howl, declares the Lord, and constantly, unceasingly, My name is reviled.” (42:3-5)

If, as Eisen asserts, linking exile to divine displeasure made it more bearable because it was now thought to be both meaningful and temporary (Ibid), then what might the message of this passage, since it clearly states that the Assyrian (read: Babylonian as well) exiles came about without justification, making the nation’s exile a source of embarrassment to God?

Rashi solves this dilemma by interpreting these verses to conform to the above generalization: “You were sold for worthless activities, namely, the evil inclination [led you to acts for which] there was no reward. And you will be redeemed not through money but rather through repentance.” (See also Rabbi David Kimche) Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel, in his second interpretation, reads this prophecy literally, again, so that it fits the model: “You went into exile poor and you will return poor.” Amos Chacham (20th century Israel) alludes to the problem in his interpretation: “You will not need to pay ransom for your redemption since your captors never paid your Master (God) for your enslavement.” (abridged from Isaiah, Daat Hamikra, p. 561)

Professor Shalom Paul (20th century Israel), however, broaches the problem head on: “They were handed over to the enemy for no payment, so, too, they will be freed without payment… Assyria enslaved you without reason”. Paul finds Isaiah’s message in verse 5 where God asks Himself what He is doing in Babylonian [together with His people]. He concludes that since His people are in Babylonia for no reason, their exile as well as His must end. The import of this message, according to Paul, is God’s presence among the exiles. (Isaiah 40-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 350-1)

This prophecy seems to say that the human predicament does not always fit into explainable categories. Obviously, there is no comfort in this. Still, there is solace. We are not alone is our suffering. God is with us.

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.

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