2021/5781 Haftorah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12
In the haftorah of parashat shofetim, God asks and answers God’s own question: “You have suffered destruction, exile, and unfathomable cruelty. Given how dysregulated, imbalanced, and alienated you are as a people, how can I comfort you?” Isaiah uses imagery of intoxication to describe this traumatic condition of the Jewish people. Our people literally became intoxicated as a result of so much suffering and pain:
Rouse, rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem, You who from the LORD’s hand have drunk the cup of God’s wrath, You who have drained to the dregs the bowl, the cup of reeling! These two things have befallen You: wrack and ruin—who can console you? Famine and sword—how shall I comfort you? Your sons lie in a swoon at the corner of every street— like an antelope caught in a net— drunk with God’s wrath, with the rebuke of your God. Therefore, listen to this, unhappy one, who are drunk, but not with wine! (51:17-21)
Reading these words, I feel forment, defeat, despair, and shame. This is the season of broken relationships. It is the time period that started with the 17th of Tammuz and culminates on Yom Kippur when Moses brought a second set of tablets. The rabbis preserve our brokenness by teaching that the holy ark contained both the luchot and shivre luchot, the refashioned tablets, along with the broken shards from the first set broken at the base of Mt. Sinai when the people were worshipping the golden calf.
Brokenness is an authentic religious phenomenon. I have a broken chair in my basement, waiting to be repaired. I have to reposition the seat, drill new holes, find the correct screws, make certain that the chair will again stand, balanced and stable. The seat not only provided a place to sit; the seat also stabilized the legs and preserved the structure’s balance. Balance is built into its structure. Every part must fit in its place. The length, the angles, the hardware, the shape must all work together, balancing form, structure and function.
I read this haftorah to be about the realignment and balance of our people. So much violence, hatred, mendacity, avarice, sexual abuse, and economic exploitation in the world. So much imbalance. So much idolatry in which people worship only their own ideas, the work of their own hands to the disenfranchisement of others. How did our people lose a sense of balance? How can we recover from the exploitation and cruelty perpetrated against us? Once we as a people lose a sense of balance, once our perspective on righteousness, justice, fairness, equity, diversity, inclusiveness, becomes imbalanced and dysaligned, once Jews embrace extreme attitudes, we perpetuate brokenness. Isaiah asked, “How do we regain the balance required for our spiritual and emotional health, along with our physical well-being?”
Isaiah is teaching us that this is what happens when people suffer. Abuse, violence, and exploitation cause a loss of balanced perspectives, values and commitments. Imbalance fosters extreme views, the brutalizing result of physical, psychic, and emotional abuse. The goal, then, is spiritual healing and repair. True healing must touch not only our bodies, but also our hearts and neshamot.
It is no accident that the rabbis selected this haftorah of healing with parashat Shofetim. The parasha emphasizes mitzvot of of tzedek and empathy. The Jewish people are obligated to establish an honest judiciary dedicated to the cause of righteousness. (Devarim 16:20) The Torah and Torah sheb’al peh establish specific parameters to protect the people against a king’s wanton, self-serving abuse of power. (Devarim 17:14 ff) We are commanded to established cities of refuge to protect those guilty of homicide from vigilante vengeance. (Devarim 19:3) Conscripts who have built a new house, planted a new vineyard, or just married are released from compulsory active combat duty. After all, they are just starting to build a life. Also released from active combat-duty is anyone too faint-hearted. (Devarim 20:5 ff) When laying siege against an enemy city, it is forbidden to defoliate the fruit-bearing trees, even though that weakens the strategic military advantage of the siege itself. God’s world must ultimately be protected as a place of nourishment for humanity. (Devarim 20:19) Finally, the parasha culminates with the mitzvah of the eglah arfuah, the “cow of the broken neck.” (Devarim 21:1-9) Indeed, the three cows of the Torah all teach us about brokenness and healing. The egel hazahav teaches us about the hysteria and group-think of idolatry, the parah adumah about the purity and blessing of life, and the eglah arufah about society’s need for leadership willing to take responsibility for human tragedies and to ask for forgiveness with humility.
Isaiah’s answer to how to heal from wounds and suffering caused by abuse and violence is self-understanding and awareness: Rouse, rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem (51:17) Awake, awake, O Zion!…Arise, shake off the dust (52:1-2) Reawaken to the presence of the Creator: It is I who fashioned the earth and stretched the heavens over the world. (51:12) The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 19th century Ukraine, explained that regaining consciousness of our purpose and place in the world has both physical and spiritual dimensions. He explained that Isaiah’s description of Jerusalem captures both the spiritual as well as physical implications of suffering. Rabbi Meir Leibush noted, along with many other commentators, the parallelism of the phrases Awake, awake, O Zion! Clothe yourself in splendor//Put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem….and he wrote:
Zion clothing itself in splendor refers to the City of King David. Located there was the holy Temple, the seat of the priesthood, the Sanhedrin high court, and the monarchy. These represent the spiritual, internal vitality of the nation. The term, “Jerusalem,” however, refers to the city in general, the external features of physical life in the form of the multitudes of inhabitants and material well-being. Those are the signs of physical success….
The Zohar describes the nature of cosmic health even more concretely in sexual terms. The coupling of the “King” (God) and “Queen,” (Israel), the joining of Heaven and earth, creates a balance between the physical and spiritual dimensions of reality. All of life has intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical dimensions, and health requires that they are all balanced with each other, joined together. The section of the Zohar called the Idra Rabbah quotes verses from this haftorah as part of a larger discussion about the unity of spirit, heart, mind and body. The explicit sexual imagery describes a holistic coupling, not only of two physical bodies, but of interlocking spiritual qualities as well:
Isaiah said, “O Zion! Clothe yourself in splendor//Put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem…” When we understand this verse, we see that it teaches about the coupling of “Zion” with “Jerusalem,” meaning, the unification of empathy (lit. rachamim, “love”) with justice (“din”). Idra Rabbah 143
This haftorah evokes themes of the month of Elul and the call to look inwards. Our people have suffered deeply in the recent past and continues to struggle for peace, security and safety. But we are not alone. The world palpitates in pain. The amount of human suffering and pain, frustration and disappointment, hunger, loss, anguish, physical exploitation, abuse and hurt all throughout the world is overwhelming. Isaiah is calling us to look inwards and outwards, to find a regained balance of feelings, spirit and thought. That starts with the optimism of hope; Isaiah said that, too. Health requires physical blessing, and the awareness to realign ourselves in the world through a commitment to justice, righteousness, humility, and empathy, nourished by the sense of awe for the Creator of All. The widespread practice to sound a shofar every morning during this month of Elul resonates with this message. The Rambam also wrote of Teshuvah, repentance, using the language of “awakening:”
Awaken from your slumber! Examine your actions, return to your true selves, and remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time… Look inside yourselves. Improve your ways and your actions and abandon the negativity in your life…( Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuva 3:4)
During this season, our job is to repair our brokenness, not weaponize it by self-isolating and perpetuating a sense of our own victimization. Our task, as God’s heralds for humanity, is to model ways of repair and healing, to find the way of inner balance, and to then seek opportunities to further the healing, one relationship at a time.