Every parsha has with it a reading from the prophets, a Haftarah. It was instituted at a time in which it was forbidden to read from the Five Books of Moses; and therefore it mirrors the messages of the parsha.
In fact, Rabbi Soloveitchik used to teach us, if you want to understand the central message of the parsha, look at what is stated in the selection from the prophets in the Haftarah.
In this week’s parsha of Noach, there is an argument between the Sephardic community and the Ashkenazic community about how much from the Book of Isaiah should be recited as our Haftarah, as our portion from the prophets.
The Sephardim suggest it should just be the first ten verses from chapter 54 of Isaiah (Isaiah 54:1-10), and the Ashkenazim suggest that one should recite those ten verses, finish chapter 54 and continue through part of Chapter 55 (Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5).
This difference between the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic community is not just semantics, but speaks to the critical message of Parshat Noach and of all of Sefer Bereshiet.
You see, the first ten verses of the haftarah speak about God’s responsibility to humanity after the destruction of the flood, where God promises, through the prophet Isaiah to the Jewish people, that God will never leave humanity again.
God tells through the prophet Isaiah, ‘You should expand your tents because your families will grow; they will never be desolate, like after the flood.’ (Isaiah 54:2)
‘You won’t be embarrassed again that you will be totally destroyed.’ (Isaiah 54:4)
‘I forgot you for a moment, but I will bring you back together for long periods of time.’ (Isaiah 54:7)
The focus for the Sephardim, for the Sephardic community, of the Haftarah is God’s responsibility to humanity.
But the Ashkenazim suggested that you need to recite a larger Haftarah: one that focuses on the covenantal relationship – not just God to the community, not just God to the Jewish people and humanity, but humanity’s responsibility to God and its responsibility as agents of creation in continuing the saga of Bereshiet.
And therefore the Ashkenazim demand that these verses are mentioned: that our ability to live in this world has to be predicated by being righteous, and not being deceptive one from another, that we should engage in learning about having a relationship with God, that we have to learn about what it means to be citizens of humanity and what it means to be part of the Chosen People.
And so the difference between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition of this Haftarah is not random. It’s a response to the flood story: Is it just God’s responsibility to assure there’s no more floods? Or is it our responsibility to celebrate the message of all of Sefer Bereshiet?
And that is to continue creation through our engagement with society.
I believe, as an Ashkenazic Jew, that this is critically important, because a relationship with God cannot just be what He does for us, but what we do for Him and what we do for the world.
The responsibility to continue to engage and to guarantee that Sefer Bereshiet continues to live through our positive contributions in the continued creation of society and of the world.