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Vayikra 5769

Parshat Vayikra
(Isaiah 43:21-44:23)
March 28, 2009
3 Nisan 5769

This week\’s haftarah opens in an unusual fashion. Its first sentence: \”The people I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise\” (43:21) serves as the concluding verse of the paragraph preceding the rest of this week\’s haftarah. There God\’s rationale for redeeming His people is explained. Its purpose in this week\’s haftarah seems to be to contrast God\’s intended purpose for His people to their unintended behavior.

Over what offense was God admonishing them? The prophet appears to answer this question in the second sentence of the haftarah (the first verse of the new paragraph): \”But you have not worshipped Me, O Jacob; that (ki) you should be weary (yagata) of Me, O Israel.\” (43:22 – NJPS translation) Ostensibly, this verse seems to be a complaint over the nation\’s neglect of service to God. The second clause of this sentence, however, is not as simple as the above English translation would seem to indicate. How are we to understand the conjunction \”ki\” since its use in this sentence is unconventional?

You would be surprised how much ink has been spilled over this sentence. I will present just a few illustrative examples. Targum Yonathan understands both clauses in the verse to be parallel and consequently, in true midrashic fashion, sought to distinguish the first clause from the second clause: \”Not in My service you called, House of Israel; behold, you wearied of the study of My Torah, Israel.\” Rashi interpreted this verse as a conditional sentence: \”You did not call upon Me, Jacob, in your resort to idolatry, for you tired quickly of serving Me.\” Rabbi Isaiah de Trani modified Rashi\’s interpretation adding a contextual element: \”You did not do what I created you for; turning instead to idolatry instead of toiling over My service.\” Rabbi David Kimche also follows this line of thinking but toys with the verb form in the second clause to increase the harshness of the message: \”You did not call Me in your time of trouble; instead you wearied Me by worshipping idolatry.\”

Cognizant of the awkward use of the word \”ki\”, Amos Hakham (Israel 20th century) flips the order of the clauses in this sentence: \”Even though you seem to weary yourselves [in My service], in truth, it is as if you never called Me, since your prayers and worship are unacceptable to Me.\” (Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 311) This interpretation understands the people\’s sin as one of hypocrisy. (See as well S. Paul, Isaiah, Mikra L\’Yisrael, p. 182 for a catalogue of these and other possibilities.)

Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel reads this verse as part of a larger picture. He sees it as an expression of God\’s utter disappointment. God asserts in this paragraph that He will redeem His people not because of its worthiness but in order to defend His good name. God had expected to be able to use His people\’s good behavior and loyalty to justify His actions, but this was not to be.

This message, which one finds here in the later chapters of the book of Isaiah and in the book of Ezekiel, brings some solace, but mostly pain. There is solace in knowing that God will be there for us no matter what. However, the pain found in our human frailty is exceedingly great. We seem unable to muster the strength to carry the full weight of being loyal to God. We fall short of our awareness that we are created in God\’s image. This is why this verse, in all of its permutations of meaning, haunts 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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