Haftarah Parshat Yitro
January 18 2014
17 Shevat 5774
Two prophetic visions from the latter prophets are forever linked liturgically with the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. On Parshat Yitro, we read Isaiah’s vision of the divine throne room where the angels proclaim God’s glory: “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Host” (6:3), while on Shavuot which again shares the same Torah reading, we read of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot where the angel’s again proclaim God’s glory with the words: “Blessed be the Presence of the Lord in His place”. (Ezekiel 3:12) These angelic responses were considered so magisterial that they were enshrined in the Kiddusha (holiness) section of the Amidah, where we proclaim God’s holy status.
With the special status granted these visions in mind, it is interesting to read the following midrash: “Rabbi Eliezer says: From where do you know that the servant woman saw at Yam Suf (at the splitting of the sea) what Isaiah and Ezekiel and all the prophets never saw? It says about them (the prophets): ‘And the ministry of the prophets have I used visions’ (Hosea 12:11) And it is also written: ‘The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’ (Ezekiel 1:1) A parable – to what can this be compared – to a king of flesh and blood who entered into a kingdom surrounded by a circle of guards; his heroes standing on his right and on his left, his soldiers before him and behind him. Everyone asks, saying: Which one is the king – since he is flesh and blood like them? But when the Holy One Blessed be He revealed Himself at the sea, no one had to ask: ‘Which one is the king?’ Rather when they saw Him, they recognized Him, and they all opened their mouths and said: ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him’ (Exodus 15.2).’ (Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Shirta Parsha 3, Horowitz Rabin edition, pp. 126-7)
That would prompt Rabbi Eliezer to make the audacious claim that the prophetic vision of a slave woman at the sea was clearer and more authentic than that of these great prophets? Perhaps part of the impetus for this midrash can be found in the democratic spirit of rabbinic Judaism. The sages wanted to make it very clear that religion was not to be exclusively the purview of the elite, whether they are prophets, priests or rabbis. The notion that only rabbis study Torah, observe commandments, or experience the presence of God was anathema to them. The life of Torah was meant for all, even the slave woman! And her vision might even be the clearest of all!
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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