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Va-ethannan 5767

Parshat Vaethanan
Shabbat Nachamu
(Isaiah 40:1-26)
July 28, 2007
13 Av 5767

This week\’s haftarah is the first of seven special haftarot which follow Tish b\’Av. These seven are known as the \”shiva denekhemta – the seven of consolation\” because, at least in part, each of them offers comfort by affirming that the exile will end, the land of Israel will be rebuilt and the community will come home and be reestablished. These haftarot are among the earliest that we have a fixed record of since the sages already collected midrashim for them as early as the 3-4th century CE. Like almost all haftarot taken from the later prophets, this haftarah contains more than one message. It also challenges the people\’s disloyalty to God, in particular, the people\’s incorrect conclusions drawn from their experience of the natural world.

This critique is expressed poignantly in the following obscure verse: \”Do you not know? Have you not heard? Have you not been told from the very first? Have you not discerned how the earth was founded (mosdot haaretz)?\” This verse seems to be aimed at those who worship idols, chiding them to take note that it is impossible to claim that the inanimate objects that they worship could possibly be the creator of the world. (A. Hakham, Isaiah, Daat Hamikra, pp. 421-2) Targum Yonatan, the Aramaic translation of the prophetic books, makes this clear: \”Do you not know? Have you not heard? Have you not seen for yourself from the beginning of the works of the order of creation. Have you not discerned to fear the One who created the foundations of the world.\”

This verse prompted Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance) to attempt to trace the etiology of the flaw in human reasoning that led to the idolatrous betrayal of God: \”How could you possibly have erred. Didn\’t you pay attention to books…to tradition.. to reason? You should have understood from the foundations of the world. Even the idolater does not think that the gold [statue] has control over the star that it represents. If so, then, how did it happen that he began to worship the statue? It simply became habit and then they forgot the distinction between the statue as symbol and that for which it is a symbol so that they began to think that the statue itself could control good and evil. Earlier generations erred in judgment; later generations erred through habit.\” (abridged and adapted) He goes on to assert that anyone who pays attention to the workings of the natural world [and ignores habit] will become conscious of the fact that the elements of the physical world cannot be deified and that they must have been created. It is possible that Kimche\’s approach to this question was influenced by that of Maimonides who follows a similar tack in explaining the origins of idolatry. (See Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah ch. 1) These sages, based on their understanding of this verse, discerned that the natural world was an important source for the awareness of God.

Kimche\’s valuable lesson for us is that habit and naivety are no excuse for ignorance of God\’s reality. It is a religious responsibility to discern the glory of God through the wonders of His creation and to take care not to fall prey to anything less.

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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