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Yitro 5768

Parshat Yitro
(Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6)
19 Shevat 5768
January 26, 2008

In order to reach the last two verses of this week\’s haftarah, we have to take a leap of well over a chapter of the book of Isaiah. This unusual phenomenon is only one of a number of the unusual questions raised by these two verses: \”For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us, and authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named \’The Mighty God is planning grace; the Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler\’ – In token of abundant (?????!) authority and peace without limit upon David\’s throne and kingdom, that it may be firmly established in justice and equity now and ever more. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts shall bring this to pass.\” (9:5-6)

The \”liturgical leap\” taken here at the end of this haftarah is best explained by the rabbinic practice of not ending a Biblical reading on a disturbing note. For some texts, like the books of Lamentations and Ecclesiastes, this means repeating the penultimate verse of the book, which contains a positive note, after the final verse of the book. In the case of this week\’s haftarah, this meant jumping over a chapter to include two verses a chapter and a half later, which contain what seemed to be a messianic note.

While the first of these two verses attempts, in one way or another, to identify said messianic figure, and represents an interesting topic we will take up another time, there is also something unusual in the last verse of the haftarah. There we find the word meaning abundant (l\’marbe) spelled in an unusual way. The second letter of the word \’mem\’ is spelled using a final \’mem\’ even though it falls in the middle of the word. Scholars of Hebrew alphabet point out that this only seems unusual since what we call a final \’mem\’ only turned into a final letter late in the development of the Hebrew alphabet. Consequently, early on the two forms of \’mem\’ were at one time interchangeable. The text of this verse as we have it represents a remnant of this older phenomenon. (Emanuel Tov, Bekoret Nusah HaMikra, pp. 167-8) The upshot of this explanation, is that the spelling here should not be seen as something unusual.

By rabbinic times, however, this simple explanation was not universally accepted as the following dispute indicated: \”All of the doubled letters of the alef-bet, one writes the first ones at the beginning or in the middle of words, but the last ones (the final letters) only at the end of words. If one alters [this rule], the text is pasul (unacceptable). They said in the name of Matia ben Heresh: mem, nun, tzadik, pei, kaf are all laws stemming from Moses at Sinai… The men of Jerusalem used to write the name Jerusalem with a regular mem at the end without concern.\” (Talmud Yerushalmi Megillah 71d)

We see that the unusual spelling of this word stood out and required explanation. Rabbinic explanations abounded, but I will focus on a particularly interesting one: \”In token of abundant (?????!) authority and peace without limit\” – R. Tanhum said: Bar Kappara expounded in Sepphoris, Why is every mem in the middle of a word open, whilst this is closed? — The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to appoint Hezekiah [the king] as the Messiah, and Sennacherib as Gog and Magog [the forces of evil in messianic times]; whereupon the Attribute of Divine Justice said before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! If You did not make David the Messiah, even though he recited so many songs and praises before You, how can You appoint Hezekiah to this position, since he did not sing before You even though You performed for him all these miracles?’ Therefore it [the mem] was closed. Immediately the earth exclaimed: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Let me sing a song before You instead of this righteous man [Hezekiah], and make him the Messiah.’ So it broke into song before Him, as it is written, \’From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even glory to the righteous. (Isaiah 24:17) Then the Prince of the Universe (an angel) said to Him (God): ‘Sovereign of the Universe! It [the earth] has fulfilled Your desire [for songs of praise] on behalf of this righteous man (Hezekiah).’ But a heavenly Voice cried out, ‘It is my secret, it is my secret.’ To which the prophet (Isaiah) rejoined, ‘Woe is me, woe is me: how long [must we wait for the messiah]?’ The heavenly Voice [again] cried out, ‘The treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously; yea, the treacherous dealers have dealt very treacherously: which Raba — others say, R. Isaac — interpreted: until there come spoilers, and spoilers of the spoilers.\” (Sanhedrin 94a)

This interpretation attempts to contend with the fact that many associated the messianic figure mentioned in this passage with King Hezekiah, the righteous king during the time of this prophecy. Since this identification did not pan out, this midrash uses the peculiar use of the final mem to explain the reason that this \”most obvious\” association did not happen. It then explains that the time and identity of the messiah are sealed like this \’mem\’, ultimately leaving the details of messianic times a secret, as it should be, so that we can work at making it happen instead of waiting for it resting on our laurels.

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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