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Yitro 5772

Haftarah Parshat Yitro
(Isaiah 6:1-13)
February 11, 2012
18 Shevat 5772

Parshat Yitro (Isaiah 6:1-13)

Philology, the study of the language in ancient sources, has recently been popularized in Jewish circles (if that is possible) by the Academy Award nominated film, Footnote (Haarat Shulayim). The movie tries to point out the tremendous human consequences of insignificant details for those who focus their lives on such things. Sometimes, though, little changes in a classic text can make all the difference. This week, I would like to lead you through a little lesson in philology that I noticed in my studies this week.

In this week’s haftarah, we are privy to join Isaiah in marveling over his revelatory vision of the divine throne room where the seraphim (the fiery angels) praise God with the famous words: “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is filled with His glory” (6:3) This vision, along with that of Ezekiel, who also had a vision of the divine realm where he also heard celestial praise for God: “Blessed is the presence of God in His place” (Ezekiel 3:12), mark the highpoint of praise for God in the Jewish tradition. These words are captured daily in our prayers in the Kidushah. We will return to these words momentarily.

In Psalm 42, the psalmist complains to God: “O my God, my soul is downcast…” (43:6) A midrash offers a reason for this despair: “The congregation of Israel said: ‘I am jealous and cast down when I see the wellbeing of the nations. I am angry, but You (God), what concern is it to You? “You, Lord, are enthroned forever; Your throne is from generation to generation” (Lamentations 5:19)?” (Midrash Tehillim 42:5, according to the Vatican Hebrew manuscript 76 recension) This midrash explains the psalmist’s dejection to be the result of the nation’s downtrodden state. It contrasts the nation’s insecure position with that of God as a plaint against God for His seeming lack of concern.

In another version of this midrash, this expression of grievance was insufficiently harsh, so it further expounded the content of the complaint: “The congregation of Israel said: ‘I am jealous and cast down when I see the wellbeing of the nations. I am angry but You (God), what concern is it to You, since the fiery angels say to You: ‘Holy, holy, holy’ and the Ofanim say to You: ‘Blessed’; ‘You, Lord, are enthroned forever; Your throne is from generation to generation’ (Lamentations 5:19)? ”. (Midrash Tehillim 42:5, according to the Jewish National Library manuscript Heb. 40 4767 recension)

If the first version was insufficiently outlandish, this additional mention of the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel in this version chastises God’s complacence for being self-satisfied not only with His own security but also with the praise offered up by the angels, and insufficiently concerned about the welfare of His people. This goes to show that the Jewish tradition never needed an intermediary to arbitrate between God and His subjects. Jews never mince words, not even with God – that was the way of Abraham with the fate of Sodom; that is the Jewish way in every generation. This little journey into Jewish philology is a further illustration of this point.

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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