Haftarat Shoftim: Do You Hear The Herald?

Haftarat Shoftim: Do You Hear The Herald?

(A discussion led by Student Rabbi Maayan Lev on September 3, 2022)

 

This week’s haftarah is the fourth of the seven haftarot of consolation following Tish’ah B’Av. Like the others, it comes from Deutero-Isaiah.[1]

The text comforts the exiled Israelites, telling them that the day is coming when they will return to their land. The important subtext behind this is that the author of Deutero-Isaiah knew about King Cyrus and the Persian regime. The hope this chapter dangles is that the Persians will not only overthrow the Babylonians, but that they will also allow the Israelites to return to their homeland. This did in fact come to pass.

The message of the haftarah is, “Let the joyous news be spread. We’re going home! And when we do, we’re gonna have to get our act together, or we’ll be in the doghouse again!”

This idea of getting our act together parallels what we Jews do during the month of Elul. Though we are not in the doghouse, and should not feel bad about ourselves unnecessarily, this is the time to get our internal affairs in order, and be the best we can be before the High Holy Days. Hopefully, the changes we make during this time will be lasting. Some of these changes may take time. If we have something really significant to work on, perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that we’ll have fixed it by the High Holy Days. After all, we’re only human. But we can do our best, and we can start the work now, instead of ignoring it.

         As Isaiah 52:2 tells us:

הִתְנַעֲרִי מֵעָפָר קוּמִי שְּׁבִי יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם הִתְפַּתְּחִי מוֹסְרֵי צַוָּארֵךְ שְׁבִיָּה בַּת־צִיּוֹן:

Arise, shake off the dust. Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!

Loosen the bonds from your neck, O captive one, Fair Zion!

 

        It states in the High Holy Day piyyut, Un’taneh Tokef:

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר, וְסוֹפוֹ לְעָפָר

Humankind’s origin is dust, and its end is (also) dust.

 

Is dust good, or bad, or neutral? It’s unclear. Maybe that’s just the way it is for mortals. But when we look at Zion as the figurative wife of HaShem, it is clear that she is no mortal. For her, it’s a bad thing to be sitting in dust.

We may only be human beings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to rise above our worst impulses.

To make an effective change, we not only have to desire said change, but we also have to realize what has been holding us back, and what potential roadblocks may stand in our way.

  • What are “bonds [around] your neck” at this time?
  • What activities or people have been most helpful in helping you “shake off the dust?”

 Take a moment and really think about it. And if you don’t have time to think about it now, file these questions away for later. We still have almost a month before Yom Kippur; but of course, it’s better to start as soon as we can.

מַה־נָּאווּ עַל־הֶהָרִים רַגְלֵי מְבַשֵּׂר מַשְׁמִיעַ שָׁלוֹם מְבַשֵּׂר טוֹב מַשְׁמִיעַ יְשׁוּעָה

אֹמֵר לְצִיּוֹן מָלַךְ אֱלֹהָיִךְ׃

How welcome on the mountain are the footsteps of the herald; announcing happiness, heralding good fortune, announcing victory, telling Zion: “Your G!d is Sovereign!”[2]

Can you hear it? Can you hear the call of the herald? It seems not unlike the call of the shofar, but there is a significant difference. The shofar is meant to inspire awe, whereas the herald in Isaiah 52 spreads happiness.

But what if we all had our very own herald whispering in our ear, like a miniature angel on our shoulder, telling us what needed to be done, so we can have a clear conscience by the time of the High Holy Days. What is the best type of message to inspire you to be the best that you can be?

סוּרוּ סוּרוּ צְאוּ מִשָּׁם טָמֵא אַל־תִּגָּעוּ.

Turn, turn away, touch nothing unclean.[3]

Would a negative message such as the one above be inspiring to you? What about a positive message, such as the one below:

כִּי־הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיכֶם יְהֹוָה וּמְאַסִּפְכֶם אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃

For HaShem is marching before you, the G!d of Israel is your rear guard.[4]

  • Which of these messages is most attractive to you?
  • Which of these messages is most effective for you?

There is no right or wrong answer, but personally, I would not write off the negative message so quickly. I do not like hearing it, and I may even be mad at the one who gives me such a message. But the positive message does not inspire me to change. No, I will not perish next year due to my inability to better myself, but if all I do is tell myself that everything will always work out, then I do not feel the need to change. If someone told me, G!d will be with me even if I don’t better myself, it’s absolutely true, but it feels like a blank check to do whatever I want.

I believe both messages, the negative and the positive, work best together. “Listen, you have to do better. It might not be easy, and you might be in for a bumpy ride, but don’t worry, because G!d will be with you every step of the way.”

Sometimes it feels like no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to get things right.

וַתְּפַחֵד תָּמִיד כׇּל־הַיּוֹם מִפְּנֵי חֲמַת הַמֵּצִיק כַּאֲשֶׁר כּוֹנֵן לְהַשְׁחִית

And you live all day in constant dread of the rage of the oppressor

who is aiming to cut [you] down.[5]

In life, there are plenty of things that cause us dread and worry. Oftentimes, they are things beyond our control. But other times, our worst oppressors are not other people, or other forces, but ourselves!

  • When are we our own oppressors?
  • Why do we oppress ourselves?

When we put off today what we can do tomorrow, we oppress ourselves. When we feel guilty for hurting the feelings of others, we oppress ourselves. When we take on too much at once, we oppress ourselves.

Why? Perhaps because we are lazy. Perhaps because we lack faith in others. Perhaps because we are afraid of failure. For all these reasons and more, we have the potential to be the biggest impediment to our own happiness.

The verse we just looked at opens with the following:

וַתִּשְׁכַּח יְהֹוָה עֹשֶׂךָ

And you have forgotten HaShem your Maker.[6]

Rabbi Mendel Hirsch[7] states that the word עֹשֶׂךָ should actually be translated as “The One Who makes you.”

This is a reminder to us that until our dying day, we are a work in progress. We will always be under construction. We never stop changing. And as long as we try, we never have to stop growing.

May the coming year be a year of growth, and a year of happiness. But we’re not there yet. So may the coming month be a month of meaningful reflection for us all.

Shabbat shalom.

 

[1] The first five come from Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55). The last two come from Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56-66).

[2] Isaiah 52:7.

[3] Isaiah 52:11.

[4] Isaiah 52:12.

[5] Isaiah 51:13.

[6] Cogan, Laine B, and Judy Weiss. Teaching Haftarah. A.R.E. Publishing, 2002.

[7] Rabbi Mendel Hirsch (1833-1900), was the eldest son of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), often considered a founder of modern Orthodox Movement. Rabbi Mendel Hirsch was an educator, writer, and lecturer. He authored a German translation and commentary on the haftarot entitled Die Haftorot uebersetzt und erlaeutert (1896).

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