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Vaera 5767

Parshat Vaera
Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
(Isaiah 66:1-24)
January 20, 2007

This past week, the Jewish world celebrated the one hundredth birthday of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the seminal Jewish thinker, sage and social activist. Heschel gained renown early in his intellectual career for his doctoral dissertation entitled, The Prophets, where he describes the prophetic vision of God: \”The Bible is not man\’s vision of God but God\’s vision of man. The Bible is not man\’s theology but God\’s anthropology, dealing with man and what He asks of him rather than with the nature of God. God did not reveal to the prophets eternal mysteries but His knowledge and love of man. It was not the aspiration of Israel to know the Absolute but to ascertain what He asks of man: to commune with His will rather than with His essence.\” (Between Man and God. p. 112)

To this effect, God\’s message, in Isaiah\’s prophecy, was meant to remind the people of Israel that their acts and their intentions are important to God. They determine whether God will be intimate with them or alienated from them. The import of this message was expressed dramatically in the rhetorical opening of the special haftarah for Shabbat when it coincides with Rosh Hodesh: \”Thus said the Lord: The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me, what place could serve as My abode?\” (Verse 1)

What is the intent of this verse? Is it a rhetorical statement about the human inability to house the omnipresent God? As Heschel noted, the prophets were not interested in theological statements for the sake of revealing the divine mystery. This is not a statement about God\’s omnipresence. It is, instead, a statement asking, rhetorically, why God would want to find Himself among a people unwilling to be loyal and unwilling to be sincere. God\’s choice of those for whom He shows His concern is revealing: \”Yet to such a one I (God) look: To the poor and brokenhearted, who is concerned about My word.\” (Verse 2)

The Talmud expresses Heschel\’s message even more radically: \”When love [between husband and wife] is strong, they can make their bed on a sword blade; when their love is weak, then a bed of six cubits is not large enough. Rabbi Huna said: This [saying] can be understood from Scripture. In earlier times [when Israel was loyal to God], it was said: \’And I will meet you and speak with you from above the ark cover\’ (Ex. 25:22) and it was taught: The ark measured nine handbreadths high and the cover one handbreadth– ten in all. But in the later time [when they were not loyal to God] it is written: \’ Thus said the Lord: The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me, what place could serve as My abode?\’\” (adapted from Sanhedrin 7a)

Rabbi Huna was aware that when human relationships are good, they are very good and when they are bad they are very bad. This also applies to our relationship with God. Loyalty and love in deed and intention are the ingredients for good human relations. The same is true of our relationship with God. This is a prophetic message worthy of Heschel.

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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