Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Walk Article

Rabbi David Walk

The dominant theme in this week's Torah reading is the establishment of a governing system for the Jews upon their arrival in Israel.  It describes the appointment of judges and court officers for all municipalities and tribal districts, plus the powers and restrictions of the Jewish kings.  This presidential election season has gotten me so sick of politics, even Torah Poli-Sci 101, that I can't bring myself to deal with these issues.  I would probably find myself trashing the judges and kings rather than discussing the issues.  Sound familiar?  When did Americans forget how to disagree respectfully? So, instead, I'm going to write about this week's beautiful Haftorah, which is the fourth in the series of seven readings from the last third of the book of Isaiah, between Tisha B'av and Rosh Hashanah, which is, remarkably, right around the corner.
These Haftorot are called the Shiva D'Nechemta, the Seven of Consolation, and they both comfort us from the mourning of Tisha B'av and prepare us for the High Holidays.  Our portion begins with the inspiring thought that God declares:  I, I Myself am the one Who comforts you (Isaiah 51:12).  The repetition of the pronoun is both for emphasis and to remind us of the verse which is the center piece of the Selichot services which lead up to the Days of Awe.  That verse which comes from the section when God forgave the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf, begins:  God, God, Who is all powerful, is compassionate and grants grace (Exodus 34:6).  Commentaries explain in both instances that God will behave towards us after the sin and punishment, just as the Deity related to us before the fracturing of our relationship.  When we proclaim this idea during Selichot and the Yom Kippur service, we mean that Divine atonement is complete in ways human forgiveness can never duplicate.  We never forgive completely.  When we read the concept in our Haftorah, we mean that God's comfort for and reconciliation with the Jews and Jerusalem will manifest itself in a restoration which will outshine the former glory.  The future redemption will be complete, total, and eternal.
This idea is very beautiful and comforting, but there is a much more famous concept in our Haftorah, which I'd like to explain in a way that Dear Reader, you may not have thought of before.  Perhaps the best known post-Biblical Jewish poem is L'cho Dodi, which is chanted by virtually every Jewish congregation as the musical welcome to our beloved Bride, the Shabbat Queen.  It's remarkable how this anthem written in the second half of the sixteenth century by Reb Shlomo Halevi Alkebets in Safed has spread to every Jewish community in the world.  Probably no other non-Torah custom is as widespread.  Many of the phrases for this poem are borrowed from the powerful poems of the latter part of the book of Isaiah.  And two of the central quotes comes from our Haftorah.
Again the two phrases we are concerned with are double.  They are hitore'ri, hitore'ri (51:17), and uri, uri (52:1).  I would translate the first paired expression as arouse yourself, arouse yourself.  The second tandem I would render into English as wake up, wake up.  The two words have the same root which means to awake, but could have the connotation of awareness and enthusiasm.  But the forms are very different.  Hitore'ri is a reflexive form, which implies that one is doing it to oneself, while uri is the simpler act of waking up.  
Here's my problem.   The hitore'ri from the verse in Isaiah is talking about getting your act together after drinking from the bitter cup of poisonous disaster meted out by God for our transgressions.  It's addressed to Jerusalem, who must find the strength for a comeback from oblivion.  On Friday night we're addressing the Shabbat Bride/Queen, who has been absent for the week, but doesn't have this context of recovering from disaster.  Well, maybe it depends on what kind of week you had. When we joyously sing the lines about awaking and donning beautiful clothes.  We're addressing an already well dressed audience, who, if they're anything like me. feel much closer to going to bed than waking up.  I'm usually really tired when I come to synagogue Friday night.  So, how do we view the message, which Rabbi Alkebets is trying to impart?
Let's go back to the original context.  The poetry of Isaiah is anticipating the renewal and rebuilding of Jerusalem in the era of the final redemption.  The arousal is lifting ourselves out of the dust heap of history to regain a prominent place on the world stage.  The awakening is to adorn ourselves with the power and splendor, which is Jerusalem's proper due.  Now let's take that metaphor to Kabbalat Shabbat.  On Friday evening we're telling ourselves that our entering Shabbat is akin to ushering in the future era of complete redemption.  Shabbat is often compared to a fore taste of future spiritual wonders.  It's like an appetizer whetting our palates for the immanent arrival of an amazing main course.
Wow, what a pleasant approach to the advent of Shabbat.  But (isn't there always a but?) what if the Shabbat at your home, synagogue and neighborhood doesn't elicit this kind of enthusiasm?  What if there are some in the household who ignore or even dread the arrival of Shabbat?  What happens when you say to these individuals that this Shabbat is a sample of the wonders of the future age?  Well, I don't think it will elicit a rousing response or loving anticipation of the glory to come.  So what do we do?
Remember the verb for arousing ourselves is reflexive.  We must work the magic on ourselves.  We who are privy to this aspect of Shabbat must be excited about the prospect of a wonderful spiritual interlude in our lives.  Enthusiasm and excitement are contagious.  If you feel it, they will come, too.  Rabbi Alkebets is telling us to greet the Shabbat Queen, but I think that he's also exhorting us to make it a day fit for a queen.              


You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParsha-subscribe@egroups.com