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Haftarat Parshat Shemot: Visions of Redemption by Gidon Rothstein

December 25, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts

Isaiah 27;6-28:13, 29;22-3

In obvious parallel to the Torah reading, the haftarah discusses redemption, starting with the actual fact of the Jewish return and “rooting” in their Land, but focusing more on the (sometimes unpleasant) steps leading up to the redemption.

For Jews stuck in Exile, the promise of return might itself be attractive enough, but the Talmud and Midrash expand it.  Shabbat 145b quotes R. Yosef as reading the first verse’s mention of יציץ ופרח, sprouting and flowering, as referring to Torah scholars, who make fringes and decorations for Torah.  Shir haShirim Rabbah 7;3 takes the verse as evidence that the Jewish people are rooted to their Land in a way other nations are not.

Putting the two together, tradition seems to be suggesting that our greatest redemption involves attaching to and beautifying the Land, as Torah scholars do with Torah.  Without belaboring the point, that nods in the direction of Bnei Akiva-type views of what it means to be Jewish in Israel, combining Torah study and performance of mitsvot with active concern with building up the Land of Israel.

After starting with the unequivocally good, several verses refer to punishment for our sins as readying the Jews for salvation.  Exactly how that works is a matter of debate, as we’ll see when we take up a few specific verses below.  Here, I would want to stress Yeshayah’s insistence on full and proper repentance as a prerequisite to redemption, and his assumption that some element of punishment will (sadly and unfortunately) be necessary before we will get to that repentance. 

I stress those because we live in a time when many try to escape one or both of those truths. To many, God should redeem us without the unpleasantness of confronting our past failures or having to bear their consequences. Sadly, neither claim is true.

What Does Redemption Look Like? The Redeemer

Shmot Rabbah 1;26 reads verses 10-11 as relating to Moshe and Mashiach, both of whom, according to tradition, will have grown up in non-Jewish environments (Moshe in Pharoah’s palace, Mashiach in Rome).  At least according to this Midrash, it sounds like the redeemer has to be someone raised in a not-specifically Jewish environment, who learned significant lessons from non-Jewish society, and only then came to take the Jews to their land.

Possibly, the Midrash implies that attachment to our Land should not exclude an awareness of other nations.  A leader raised in a foreign milieu will be more likely to lead us in a continuing engagement with the world.  Or, for those of us who push the value of combining Torah with other forms of wisdom, the Midrash’s point is that redemption will not involve closing ourselves off culturally or intellectually, but will involve enriching Torah with the appropriate aspects of non-Jewish forms of wisdom as well.

What Does Redemption Look Like? The Different Places of Exile

Verse 12 says that God will take us out of the middle of the rushing stream, bring us back from the river of Egypt, and take the Jews back one by one.  Rashi reads it as referring to three types of exiles—the Assyrian, the Egyptian, and a future one.  Radak identifies the river as Sambatyon, which spews stones from the strength of its flow, except for Shabbat, when it rests.

Either version makes the point that our exiles are more than geographical, they affect who we are and how we approach the world.  Some exiles find themselves in the middle of a rushing stream, part of an exciting, vibrant society which may not be particularly antithetical to observance.  Other exiles are in places like Egypt, the paradigm of a culture hostile to Torah observance.  Finally, some Jews live in small groups or in places where so many will assimilate that only individuals will survive (spiritually) to reach redemption. 

Aside from promising that God will take Jews back from all types and locations of exile, then, the verse also suggests that one challenge of redemption will be to forge a unified society out of Jews who have had such different exilic experiences.

Keeping It All About God

Verses 7 and 8 of Chapter 28, almost a digression, point out the Kingdom of Judea’s overinvolvement with wine, and note that that itself deserves punishment, even as it is clear that this is less severe a sin than those of the Northern Kingdom.  Allowing any commitments to compete with God is a problem; even just too much of a focus on drinking wine loosens our connection to God enough to obligate exile and postponing redemption. 

While the prophet’s example was wine, the principle would seem equally applicable to Scotch, material possessions, or any personal endeavors or attachments that distract us from focusing on God, regardless of whether they are inherently sinful.  Similarly, Avot 3;3 cites verse 8 as proof of the need to include words of Torah at any meal where 3 people eat together.  I understand this to mean that eating without mentioning Torah would turn food, like the drinking of wine in Judea, into an attachment that competitive with our attachment to God. 

The Mishnah’s likening it to idol worship suggests that the but share the basic flaw of idolatry is as much in the break in the relationship to God, however it occurs, as in the idolatry itself.

What Will Redemption Look Like? The Challenge of Change

Starting from verse 9, Yeshayah comments that God’s wisdom can only be taken in little pieces.  Rashi thinks he means only babies will be able to absorb that wisdom, while Radak thinks even adults might, but only in bits and pieces over long periods of time. 

Either version reminds us of the chasm between what we think and God’s Truth.  For Rashi, only babies and small children retain the kind of openmindedness, of intellectual flexibility and readiness to accept that we were wrong, necessary to be able to accept the divine Wisdom.  For Radak, adults can do so as well, but only bit by bit. 

Just that might require that redemption take several generations, each generation moving in small steps towards absorbing enough of God’s wisdom to merit the ultimate redemption.  If so, those who see our times (starting, perhaps, in the late 1800s) as the beginning of the redemption could point to this claim of Yeshayah’s for support.

Specific Verses and Their Ramifications

As mentioned above, 27;8 speaks of God measuring out our punishment, “בסאסאה, בשלחה תריבנה, in that measure, when God sent them out, did they (the enemies) contend with them” which Sotah 8b-9a took two ways.  First, it read the verse as meaning that God’s punishments respond directly (middah ke-neged middah, measure for measure) to the sins committed; the Midrash adds that the same is true in reverse, that God rewards in a way directly related to the good we did.

This, to me, seems to say that when we receive punishment, we should be able to, in some ways, understand what we did to become liable for that—and vice verse for when we receive reward.  Perhaps not all times of trouble are punishment, perhaps not all successes are reward, but those that are, the verse seems to say, respond directly and correspondingly to our sins.

Rather than being an incomprehensible black box, the verse and the Talmud see Divine actions in this world as open to our rational inquiry and understanding.  Approached with a clear mind, we should be able to understand why God has rewarded us (from the nature of the reward) and why God has punished us (from the form the punishment takes).

Second, the Talmud notes God’s kindness in frequently punishing the Jewish people.  Other nations, the Talmud notes, are left untouched until the weight of their sins becomes so heavy that they abruptly exit from the world stage.  Our steady punishment helps us in two ways, making us aware of our sins before we become too ensnared in them, but also allowing us to expiate them in small pieces instead of all at once.

Shabbat Shalom.

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