Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Walk Article

A TALE OF TWO HAFTOROT 

Shmot-5779 

Rabbi David Walk 

 

The practice of reciting haftorot on Shabbat and Chag is often a bit embarrassing. There's probably no communal custom as denigrated as the haftora. A major competition exists between haftorot 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 haftora 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 haftora. 

Why do we read these passages from the Prophets? The popular explanation is probably inaccurate. Reb David Abudraham (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 haftorot. Personally, I believe that the haftora 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 haftora to read this week. 

There are two customs concerning which haftora to read this week. The Sefardim read the first chapter in the book of Yirmiyahu, which we Ashkenazim recognize as the first of the three haftorot read between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av (SHALOSHA D'PARANUTA, the trio of sorrow). The Ashkenazic rite reads material from chapters 27 through 29 of Yishayahu, which, of course, is longer (Ours is always longer.) 

The first chapter in Yirmiyahu is the more obvious choice. Yirmiyahu 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. Yirmiyahu 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 Yirmiyahu. 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 Yirmiyahu proclaimed the demise of Temple and Kingdom. 

The reading from Yeshayahu, on the other hand, confronts a totally different aspect of our parsha. We have two issues in our Torah reading which are fundamental to our nationhood. We've just discussed the prophecy of Moshe, 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 (Devarim 16:4). It's this issue of servitude and survival which Yeshayahu discusses. 

The haftora passage discusses two aspects of the exile and redemption scenario. Curiously, first we deal with consolation ('Was he [Yisrael] beaten as his oppressor [Bavel] has been?', Yeshayahu 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 Yosef's services to the crown of Egypt. 

But the hatorah uplifts at the end: No more shall Ya'akov be ashamed; no longer will his face be pale (29:22). 

Therefore, both haftorahs tap into the verities of our parsha 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 Yeshayahu taught cause our problems. Take your pick!  


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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Walk Article

WELL BLESS MY SOUL 

Vayechi-5779 

Rabbi David Walk 

 

Everybody wants a BRACHA. And this week's parsha is filled with them. As a ba'al teshuva into a Lithuanian heritage, brachot aren't a core issue. I remember in the early 70's when a young Chasiddishe fellow who learned one summer with Rabbi Soloveitchik in Boston asked the Rav for a bracha, before returning back to NYC (I'm gonna guess Brooklyn). Unfortunately, he did this publicly. The Rav was visibly embarrassed. He mumbled something about making brachot over apples. Then Rav Soloveitchik noticed the young man's discomfort and gave him a bracha to succeed in his learning. I've written about my own discomfort when being asked for brachot from students. On the other hand, I've always loved giving my children and grandchildren brachot Friday nights. As Cohanim recite, blessing is an act of love, and this week's parsha overflows with blessings and love, as we bid farewell to Ya'akov Avinu, Yisrael Saba. 

What is a bracha? Well wishing? Prayer? Cosmic connection? Guidance? I'm not sure, but I do believe that brachot do depend on the blessee (MEVURACH) as much as the blesser (MEVARECH). Ya'akov understood this, and that's why certain brachot contain warnings. I'd like to ask: Which is the best of these blessings? I mean some are easy to eliminate. Who wants to be a wolf or donkey? But some discuss wealth and power. My clear favorite was given to Dan:  LISHUATICHA KIVITI HASHEM. I've seen this beautiful phrase terribly translated as, I am waiting for Your Salvation, O Lord.' Really, 'waiting' for KIVITI?  It's much better rendered 'pray for (Rav Aryeh Kaplan)' or 'long for (Common English Bible)' or 'trust in (Living Bible)'. My personal choice is 'expect'. 'Wait for' is much too passive a position for TIKVA, which we usually translate 'hope'. 

This bracha is my favorite because it expresses the optimism and growth which brachot represent. A blessing should trigger a sense potential and expectation in the recipient. Brachot should be about inspiration for the other. 

But what is the 'salvation' referred to in the blessing? Good question. There are three approaches to the problem of who is expecting God's salvation. The most famous is expressed by Rashi. He explains that that this blessing refers to the most famous descendant of Dan, namely Shimshon. Shimshon was the only Judge captured and tortured by the enemies of Israel, in this case the Philistines. He could have grimly accepted his fate; instead he grittily affirmed his faith. With his last once of courage, Shimshon lashed his chains around the supporting pillars of his captors' palace, destroying the building and killing all its denizens. He believed in his ultimate victory til his dying breath (Shoftim 16:28-30). 

However, others (led by the Chizkuni) believe that the speaker is Dan, himself, seeing the future of his tribe. The father of this tribe of Israel is given a vision of his descendants' fate. The tribe of Dan will suffer greatly. Their initial portion was in the coastal plain, which is why the Tel Aviv area is called Gush Dan. That area was a crossroads for foreign empires, and eventually the tribe would move north to the area around Tel Dan, at the foot Mt. Hermon. He prays that his children will maintain their faith in Divine help rather the strategy of sneaky behavior described in verse 17: Dan will be a snake in the road.  

The translation of Yonaton ben Uziel (first century CE) gives another picture: Ya'akov is the speaker, and said that he didn't want the salvation of Gidon ben Yoash (Shoftim 6:11-7:22) and Shimshon ben Manoach, which were temporary, rather he continues to expect the victory of God through Mashiach from David, which will be eternal. 

When a blessing is bestowed, what is being communicated? The wishes of the blesser, the needs of the blessee, or a vision of the eventual destiny of our people. Of course, the answer is 'D', all of the above. And there's a custom in most prayer books which gives expression to the triple nature of this blessing. There's a custom of reciting the 13 Principles of Faith after Shacharit. Right after that we have this three-word blessing three times like this: LISHUATICHA KIVITI HASHEM, KIVITI HASHEM LISHUATICHA, HASHEM LISHUATICHA KIVITI. We're expressing all three possibilities; blesser (now), blessee (tomorrow), and destiny. 

I love this blessing. I've used it as a prayer when facing danger. It got good use during my IDF service. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I used it in huddles, when I coached an NCSY basketball team. It's a great expression of hope when the situation looks bleak. 

But like all blessings, it can't be used as a way of shirking responsibility. Instead, it's a confidence builder when striving to achieve a better outcome. When you see a sports team praying pregame, that doesn't mean that they're not going to try during the game. When we pray for a loved one who is ill, we still seek the best possible medical care. 

The first time I ever used this wonderful phrase as a prayer was in college. I sat down in this large room (501 Furst Hall, for those who know YU) for a final and repeated this a few times while the tests were being distributed. A friend failed the exam, and was distraught. This young man was nouveau frum, and had spent the previous night davening while the rest of us were studying. Prayers and blessings support effort, not replace it. 

Ya'akov, Dan and Shimshon were all about giving their absolute best to the task at hand. They knew full well that the road is long and they might not see its end, but they did their best to bring it closer. Vince Lombardi, before he became a Rest Stop on the NJ Turnpike said it well: 'Gentlemen, we will chase perfection relentlessly. We know we can't reach it. But we will catch excellence.' As a nation we chase perfection, and call it GEULA SHLEIMA, may we all catch it. 


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