Haftarah for The Morning of Yom Kippur (Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14)
September 23, 2015 / 10 Tishre 5776
The second verse of the haftarah for the morning of Yom Kippur contains a description of God familiar to anyone who davens (prays) the traditional prayers on the morning of Shabbat and festivals: “Shohain ad marom v’kadosh shmo – “For thus said He who high aloft forever dwells, whose name is holy.” (57:15) This transcendent imagery, which marks the close of the Nishmat kol hai prayer, is intended to conjure up a sense of God’s majesty as the prayer service winds towards the part of the service containing the recitation of the Shma. In its biblical context, though, these words, when accompanied by the second part of this verse, create a religious anomaly, since the image of God found in the second part of this verse moderates this sense of transcendence: “I dwell on high in holiness; yet with the contrite and lowly in spirit, reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of the contrite.” (Ibid.) We are left here then with a description of God which is both transcendent and immanent – a king who is both removed and accessible.
Still, these two disparate images prompt later commentators to attempt to accommodate these seemingly irreconcilable images since at some point in time, the possibility of being both transcendent and immanent became a theological problem. The Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, resolves the problem by adding a single word: “For thus said He who high aloft forever dwells, whose name is holy. On high He dwells in holiness. He speaks with the contrite and lowly in spirit, reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of the contrite.” By having God speak with the downtrodden instead of dwelling with them, God remains transcendent while showing His concern for those down below.
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) resolves this seeming dilemma another way. He interprets “Shohain ad” temporally instead of spatially to mean “He who lives forever… His providence is forever on His creatures.” This allows him to say regarding the second part of the verse: “Even though I dwell with the high and holy, namely, the spheres and angels, I also dwell with the lowly, with those who are lowly and contrite, to revive their spirits and hearts even though they are sometimes in trouble, they should not think that I have no concern for them. So Israel in the future will be in exile for a lengthy period, where they are lowly and oppressed, I will restore them for they are like the dead while in exile.” By redefining terms, Kimche creates for himself sufficient consistency for God to be both transcendent and immanent.
The lesson we draw from this discussion is twofold, one theological and one anthropological. The thrust of the biblical message is that God is both beyond us and with us. We should feel both awe and intimacy. Like our ancient brethren, we should not be bothered by this anomaly because we should understand that it is only anomalous for us as human beings. On the anthropological level, we should have an appreciation that human understanding changes over time and that the questions and answers that service one generation are not always those which will meet the needs of another generation. Each generation has to juggle its relationship with God to fit its challenges and understandings.
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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