A TALE OF TWO HAFTOROT
Rabbi David Walk
The practice of reciting on Shabbat and is often a bit embarrassing. There's probably no communal custom as denigrated as the . A major competition exists between and sermons for which cause more people to depart shul. I remember being a 'scholar in residence' (perhaps more correctly 'entertainer in visit') at a major congregation in the American Midwest. As I ascended the podium a large group started departing. I quickly called to them, 'Wait! Usually, people have to hear me a couple of times before abandoning ship!' That actually got a couple of them to return. But I digress. Why do people depart when a is chanted? Perhaps, it's the quality of the liquor being served in some back room, Orthodox Jews' version of a 'speakeasy'. But I really believe it's a lack of appreciation for the institution of the .
Why do we read these passages from the Prophets? The popular explanation is probably inaccurate. Reb David (14th century, Spain, whose commentary on liturgy was the first book ever printed in Africa, 1497) famously wrote the best-known reason: During the persecutions of Antiochus, the Jews were forbidden to read the Torah, so a portion from the prophets, with similar content, was read in its stead. Few scholars accept that theory today. Actually, there is no generally agreed upon reason for the practice. All we certain of is that by the first century of the Common Era, our ancestors were reading . Personally, I believe that the was a pedagogic device for elucidating and emphasizing the major concept in that week's Torah reading. With that in mind, let's look at the argument about which to read this week.
There are two customs concerning which to read this week. The read the first chapter in the book of , which we Ashkenazim recognize as the first of the three read between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha (SHALOSHA D'PARANUTA, the trio of sorrow). The Ashkenazic rite reads material from chapters 27 through 29 of , which, of course, is longer (Ours is always longer.)
The first chapter in is the more obvious choice. is told by God that he would be a prophet, and responds, 'Alas, O Lord God! Behold, I know not to speak for I am a youth.' Sound familiar? Very much like Moshe's response when told that he would represent God before the Jewish people, right down to the complaint about his speaking ability. They shared a destiny to prophecy. from the womb; Moshe from the floating wicker basket. They also shared the most tumultuous prophetic careers. Many prophets were denigrated by the masses, but none like Moshe and . Their shared greatness may stem from their steadfast performance in the face of crowd disapproval. I wish we had the poll numbers when Moshe announced 40 more years of desert wandering or proclaimed the demise of Temple and Kingdom.
The reading from , on the other hand, confronts a totally different aspect of our . We have two issues in our Torah reading which are fundamental to our nationhood. We've just discussed the prophecy of which Maimonides counts as one of the 13 principles of belief: The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher (#7). Then there's the bondage and redemption from Egypt which is one of the 6 remembrances: So that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life ( 16:4). It's this issue of servitude and survival which discusses.
The passage discusses two aspects of the exile and redemption scenario. Curiously, first we deal with consolation ('Was he  beaten as his oppressor  has been?', 27:7), and future glory ('On that day, a great shofar's horn shall be sounded, and the strays in Assyria and the expelled in Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount, Yerushalayim,' verse 13). Only afterward do we have a section of rebuke, in which 'priest and prophet are muddled by liquor (28:7),' eventually resulting in 'hail shall sweep away the refuge of falsehood, and floods engulf your shelter (verse 17).' Why this flip of the chronology of destruction and renewal?
I think that the order of the material feeds into the message our Sages wanted to teach by choosing this haftorah. Our forebears wanted to hear that our long exile of suffering and woe would end. They had to hear that message of hope right off the bat. But they also had to hear that much (but not necessarily all) of our suffering, we brought upon ourselves. We've had corrupt leadership and complicit followers. But this descent from spirituality had a root cause: people were bloated from rich foods and overcome by wine (28:1). It's quite possible that this fills a lacuna in our text. Why did the Jews of Egypt become enslaved? Perhaps, they as well became fatted by the pampered position they attained because of s services to the crown of Egypt.
But the uplifts at the end: No more shall be ashamed; no longer will his face be pale (29:22).
Therefore, both haftorahs tap into the verities of our and Jewish history. First Moshe is the prime prophet whose prophecies will endure eternally, in spite of his reticence and difficulties. Secondly, Jewish history has been a cycle of exile and return which began in Egypt and still informs our reality today. The Jews of Europe were more often oppressed and opted for a message of hope; our Sephardic brethren chose the philosophic underpinnings of our faith.
It behooves us to stay and pay attention to the haftorah, because if you've left you won't get these important messages. Instead, you're getting the 'rich foods and alcoholic beverage' which taught cause our problems. Take your pick!