Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

Forever

I’m a bit of a weirdo. I get that. I find that often in conversations at work I play the role of the contrarian. I’m probably the only Orthodox Jew in my zip code with a pair of cowboy boots, much to my daughter’s embarrassment. And I like haftorahs. I know that enjoying biblical poetry is weird and I’m not going to try and change your mind.  I just want to let you know that this week’s haftorah has a particularly vivid and beautiful set of images.

To really enjoy a haftorah, like a connoisseur enjoying wine, you have to do the literary equivalent of swirling it around in your glass and breathing it in. That is of course, you have to understand just a bit about who is speaking, to whom they are speaking, and what happened just before and just after this little vignette.  One reason that I think the haftorahs don’t capture people’s attention is that MOST haftorahs come from the Navi Yishayahu (Isaiah) and as everyone knows [all together class] Yishyahu is arranged thematically NOT chronologically.  That makes understanding the historical context a bit challenging. In summary, the first half or so of the book of Yishayahu is all about how if the Jewish people are bad then the nation will be attacked, and the people will suffer.  Then there is a small chunk of the sefer that changes from biblical poetry to narrative, and the Assyrian invasion of Judea and the siege of Jerusalem, and the miraculous salvation of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty are discussed.  The third chunk of the sefer is filled with prophesies that talk about reward, and good times, and big promises and consolation.  Our haftorah comes from this part.

The last thing I want to say as an introduction is that to really appreciate what the navi is saying I think you have to read it as if you were using 3-D glasses.  Remember the old style 3-D glasses where one lens was red and the other blue? (Nowadays they use polarized lenses that lets different wavelengths of light into each eye. But don’t worry, that won’t be on the test.) That’s the idea here but with one lens you have to see what the navi meant to the people in his day.  With the other eye you have to see what the eternal message is that made these words worthy of canonization forever.

The haftorah starts off with this:

“Zion says, ‘Hashem has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’

Can a woman forget her baby

or not feel compassion

for the child of her womb?

Even these may forget and

 I will not forget you.”

(Oh yeah. One other reason I think people don’t “get” the poetry in the haftorah is because in a chumash it’s laid out in the same format as prose.  But you can’t read poetry like it’s a Facebook post or a website. You have to use a poetry voice.  I think that the above layout might help.)

If you just imagine what it would have been like for the survivors of the Assyrian holocaust – located as they were in Jerusalem, in that moment in history.  Remember, they haven’t experienced the destruction of the Beis Hamikdsah, still 200ish years in their future. They haven’t survived the exile or rebuilt the Beis Hamikdash or been saved during the times of Esther. And they haven’t been burned at the stake or inquisitioned or put in cattle cars or gassed.  To those people in that time, this was The Holocaust. This was the destruction of Everything. The whole of Judah is gone. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead and injured. The Temple and Jerusalem have survived, but just. And now they look around.

They must have thought it was all over. They would never rebuild. It was 1945 and they were in a DP camp looking at Poland. There was nothing but hopelessness and despair.

“Hashem has forsaken me. My Lord has forgotten me.”

And that is the worst feeling.

I hope you’ve never been there. I hope you always feel the warm sunshine of Hashem’s comforting guidance and support.  But I’ve been there. I’ve wondered if it’s all my fault and I messed everything up, and now I’m going to have to grope through this darkened maze, smashing my pinky toe and banging my shins for the rest of my life. It’s the literal worst.

So the navi responds –

Does a normal, healthy mother lover her child?

Obviously.

Does she love the child when he grows up?

Yes.

When he moves away?

Yes.

When he grows up and moves away and doesn’t call for a couple of weeks and you don’t know what he’s doing and maybe even she suspects that he’s doing things she doesn’t approve of, does a mother lover her child?

YES! Of course! They are bound together. She would never stop loving him! (Even if she wanted to, she literally couldn’t.)

The Creator of the Universe declares, “A mother will forget her child and she will cease to have compassion for him long before I forsake you. It will never happen. My love for you is Forever.”

That’s the message the navi is trying to give. That’s the hope.  Not just for them.

It’s hard for me not to think Dickensian thoughts about this being the best of times and the worst of times.  On the one hand, there is so much Torah study happening! Deep and broad scholarship in all areas of Torah from the most esoteric to the most modern and practical.  And besides the thousands (tens of thousands?) of young men and women dedicating years and years to Torah, every shul is filled with people who have full time jobs, and side hustles, and children to raise and a dozen other commitments, who dedicated hours each day to the full range of Torah study.  And chessed! Every large Jewish community has an organization to help children with special needs and their families, and sick children and their families, and sick adults and their care givers, and families that need help making weddings.  There are organizations to help couples struggling with infertility, and families struggling with addiction and mental illness, and Hatzalah to save your life, Shomrim to protect your neighborhood, and Chaverim to change your flat tire. And perhaps most importantly, we can get to Israel with incredible ease. (If your grandparents heard that you had a layover in Moscow or Istanbul on the way to Israel their brains would have exploded. And it is the most ordinary thing in the world right now.) Based on the ads I see in our “Jewish” magazines, people have money to burn on the chicest children’s clothing, glatt kosher luxury African safari vacations, and the best spirits and food a world class chef can imagine.

And while all that is true, we have hardworking (maybe overworked) mothers and fathers who are being choked to death by tuition, and (what appears to me at least to be) an epidemic of divorce among young couples, and families afraid to deal with illness because they are afraid of how that will impact shidduchim (and they’re not wrong to be worried! That’s the crazy thing!) And so many, so many singles looking for the right person to share their life with. The fractured nature of Jewish life in Israel — where groups of Jews are ready to come to blows against other Jews – is shockingly similar to the reports of life in Jerusalem just before the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.  Jews who can’t wait to fall off the back of the truck of Jewish history are more common statistically than Jews who care about Shabbos. The far left of the political world and the far right of the political world can’t agree that the Earth is round, or who won a presidential election; the only thing that they agree on is that the country would be better if it had no Jews in it.

When you stop and look at the worst of times aspect of this world, it can be overwhelming.

Perhaps, way out here at the end of history, Hashem has forgotten about us? Perhaps we have just messed things up so badly that we’re on our own. Perhaps Hashem has forsaken us?

Can a woman forget her baby

or not feel compassion

for the child of her womb?

Even these may forget and

I will not forget you.

So this week, I don’t have a great chiddush or a deep insight that breaks open the text in a novel way.  And I don’t have some inspiration from my week that leads to a new insight on the parsha.  I just have this message.

The Creator has not abandoned you.

Hashem loves you.

Forever.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now three precious granddaughters.
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