Haftarah Parshat Vayikra
March 8, 2014
6 AdarII 5774
In the midst of his plaint against his people’s disloyalty to God, Isaiah lets loose with a sentence which has perplexed and plagued the western religious world: “Your earliest ancestor sinned and your spokesmen transgressed against Me.” (Isaiah 43:27) Who was this “earliest ancestor”? What were his sins and what is the effect of his actions on future generations?
The identity of this “earliest ancestor” has run the gamut. Rashi identifies him with Abraham who at one point asked God for proof that His promises would be fulfilled. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, pointed to Jeroboam as the culprit: “since the [people of] Israel choose him as king without divine approval.” Rabbi Eliezer from Beaugency claimed that this ancestor was the desert generations who were chosen by God only to sin by following the golden calf. (See also A. Hacham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra.) The Italian sage, Rabbi Isaiah from Trani placed the burden on our early ancestors who had all sinned. Rabbi Joseph Kaspi, the philosopher, singled out Israel’s leadership: “who took assistance from Egypt and Assyria [instead of trusting in God]. Professor Shalom Paul, who probably captures the plain meaning of the text, identifies Jacob as the “earliest ancestor” since he serves as the forefather of the people. (Isaiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 185)
Rabbi David Kimche named Adam, the first human being, as the culprit: “How is it possible for you not to sin, for your first ancestor sinned? And it was Adam the first human being, who was stamped with sin, as it says: ‘for the devisings of a man’s mind are evil from his youth’. (Genesis 8:21) According to this viewpoint, the finite nature of the human being can be pinned on the first human whose behavior was quite natural. Adam, lacking divine perfection, was destined to live and to die.
The following anecdote describing Moses’ last days takes this last interpretation into account: “When Moses saw the Aaron’s bier prepared and the ministering angels standing and eulogizing, he desired the same, as it says: ‘You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered unto your kin, as your brother Aaron died’ (Deut. 32:50) – the very same death that you desire. When the time came for Moses’ end, to leave the world, the Angel of Death came and stood before him, Moses became angry at him and he (the angel) left with a rebuke… Moses went to the Mighty One (God) and said: Master of the Universe, make known to me the kind of death I will die. If with regard to the first matter, it has already been decried that I will not enter the land, Heaven forbid that I will be found sinful. The Holy Spirit replied and said to him: Moses, you are saved, you have no sins in your hands. You will die only on account of the decree [against] Adam (the first man), as it says: ‘Your earliest ancestor sinned.’ (Isaiah 43:27) God informed Moses that He would take his soul in this world and would return it in the world to come. He took Moses soul and placed it with the souls of the righteous until the throne of glory that it might provide thanksgiving and praise.” (adapted from Avot d’Rabbi Nathan version b, chapter 25, Schechter-Kister ed. p. 51)
All of us lead lives limited in time by the fact that we are human beings with human frailties. We can only hope that when our day comes, that we will share Moses’ fate and be among the righteous souls who find a place under God’s throne of glory singing praise and thanksgiving.
Dedicated to the memory of my beloved rabbi, teacher and mentor, Rabbi Richard A. Levine z”l who passed away this past Shabbat.
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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