Haftarah Parshat Vaykira
March 12, 2011
6 Adar II, 5771
Isaiah opens his message in this week’s haftarah on a disconcerting note. The people of Israel were created for a purpose, so he says. God’s intention was that they serve Him and praise Him. He asked very little, but received much less from His charges. Instead of praise and offerings, He received from them disregard and sin. God challenged them to defend themselves, to stand up for their behavior, to face His charges: “Help Me remember! Let us join in argument. Tell your version that you may be vindicated.” (43:26) This message is filled with bitterness and disappointment. It does not seem to come with any expectation that Israel might offer up substance in its argument; rather it comes as a rhetorical device to make the people realize the errors of their way.
Among the prophets there were those who thought that the meting out of divine justice in the world was an indication of God’s greatness. In some rabbinic circles, however, this assessment may have been questioned. Through an innovative reading of the above cited verse, the following midrash has God doing a cost – effect analysis of strict divine justice: [The people of] Israel said to the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘Master of the universe, You sit in judgment over us. Prosecutors stand before You and defenders stand before You. The latter speak in defense and the former speak in accusation. Look with favor only on those who speak in our defense.’ The Holy One blessed be He replied:’ By your lives, this is what I will do [for you]. Why? I [really] want you to be acquitted. Come and see [a parable]: Two people begin a lawsuit. One silences the other litigant, saying: ‘Let me speak first.’ The Holy One blessed be He, [on the other hand,] said to Israel: ‘Let us join together in legal argument’ (Isaiah 43:26), Israel asked: ‘Who will speak first?’ God replied: You speak first: ‘Speak now that you should be vindicated’ (Ibid.). Why? If I (God) win the case, [ultimately], I will be the loser, [but] if you win, I only gain. I (God) won out over the generation of the flood and ultimately lost out. And so, too, over the generation of the dispersion (the Tower of Babel), and I certainly lost out there. The same goes for the Sodomites. There, too, I lost out. I won out over Jeremiah, but didn’t I lose there as well since I destroyed the First Temple and exiled My children? But regarding the sin the golden calf, Moses won out over Me and as a result, I came out a winner. I most certainly prefer that you come out a winner over Me now. (adapted from Pesikta Rabbati 40)
This midrash inclines towards seeing God’s greatness in His ability to forgive and in showing mercy. This is not mean to say that He does not desire change. He most certainly does, but His bottom line seems to be that fixing something is much better than destroying it. This may be a valuable lesson for His human subjects as well.
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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