The practice of reciting haftarot on Shabbat and Chag is often a bit embarrassing. There’s probably no communal custom as denigrated as the haftarah. 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 haftarah 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 haftarah.
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 this practice. By the first century of the Common Era, our ancestors were certainly reading haftarot. Personally, I believe that the haftarah 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 haftarah to read this week.
There are two customs concerning which haftarah to read this week. The Sefardim read the first chapter in the book of Yirmiyahu, which we, as Ashkenazim,recognize as the first of the three haftarot 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 both shared a destiny to prophesize. 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 (number seven ). Then, there’s the bondage and redemption from Egypt which is one of the six 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 haftarah 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 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,” (27:13). Only afterwards 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 (28:17).” Why this chronological flip of destruction and renewal?
I think that the order of the material feeds into the message our sages wanted to teach by choosing this haftarah. 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 fattened by the pampered position they attained, because of Yosef‘s services to the crown of Egypt.
At the end, the haftarah leaves us with an uplifting message: “No more shall Ya’akov be ashamed; no longer will his face be pale.” (29:22)
Therefore, both haftarot 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; while, our Sephardic brethren chose the philosophical underpinnings of our faith.
It behooves us to stay and pay attention to the haftarah, because if you’ve left, you won’t get these important messages. Instead, you’re getting the “rich foods and alcoholic beverage” which, as Yeshayahu taught, causes our problems. Take your pick!
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.