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Vayikra 5773

Haftarah Parshat Vayikra
(Isaiah 43:21-44:23)
March 16, 2013
5 Nisan 5773

God is in a perpetual struggle with His people, attempting to engage their allegiance. This struggle was ongoing and its details are frequently captured by the prophets. The beginning of this week’s haftarah captures just such a debate. God, as both judge and prosecuting attorney, challenged His people’s loyalty. Ultimately, God challenges the people to defend themselves against these charges. When God’s challenge goes unanswered, He responds, seemingly in response to the silence: “Your earliest ancestor (Avikha Harishon) sinned and your spokesmen (u’mlitzkha) transgressed against Me.” (43:27)

While Isaiah may have intended the term “earliest ancestor” be understood figuratively, from earliest times, interpreters have sought to identity it with a specific historical figure. Avot de Rabbi Natan version b (ch. 25 Schechter- Kister ed. p. 51) identifies Adam as this “earliest ancestor”: “Moses went to the Almighty and said to Him: ‘Master of the Universe, show me what kind of death I have in store. Already, it has been decreed that I will not enter into the land; Heaven forbid, He (God) will find that I have sinned.’ God replied: ‘Moses, you are saved, you have no sins. You will die only on account of the decree regarding Adam, as it is written: Your earliest ancestor sinned.’ Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) also shares this interpretation, basing his choice upon the verse: “for the inclinations of man are evil from his youth,” (Genesis 9:21)

Rashi, on the other hand, identifies the figure in the verse with Abraham, whose sin, he notes, was to express doubt in God when he asked for a sign that God’s promise to grant him the land would come true: “How will I know that I will possess it?” (15:8) Professor Shalom Paul (20th century) thinks that Jacob is the probable association. (Isaiah 4-48, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 185) Rabbi Eliezer from Beaugency (13th century) identifies the “first ancestors” with the generation who came out of Egypt whom he considered the founders of the people. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (13th century Spain), in contrast, understood “avikha” – literally “your father” to refer to the first sinful king whom he identifies with Jeroboam, the first king not appointed by God.

Rabbi Joseph Caspi offers, what to my mind, is the most sensible interpretation: “Since the word “av” in Hebrew and through reason may refer to figures both distant and close without number, and so, too, “rishon – early”, it is in our hands to interpret to associate these terms with Adam, if we want, but this is according to my opinion.”

Caspi gets to the crux of the matter. The message is ultimately what is important. We cannot know whether the prophet meant this sentence to be figurative or had certain figures in mind. For our purposes, the associations are helpful provided they lend themselves to the prophet’s message. In this case the prophet makes it very clear that the community of Israel should take its relationship with God seriously.

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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