The haftarah for Nitzavim is the last of the seven haftarot of consolation before the Days of Awe begin. It's a pretty upbeat selection from Isaiah (61:10-63:9) that Jerusalem and Israel's redemption from her enemies is at hand. It's just the sort of message we need to hear before Rosh Hashanah.
Yet, in determining the passages to be included in the haftarah, the sages went on to include chapter 63's first nine verses. An odd choice. It speaks of a vengeful, warrior G"d. (63:1-4,6) And of a G"d who felt abandoned, forced to bring about victory without the partnership of G"d's chosen people. (63:5) Yet just a few verses later (63:8) Isaiah tells us that:
"G"d said: They alone are my people, children who will not be false to me."
And Isaiah adds: "So G"d became their savior."
It's all rather confusing. Either Isaiah isn't reporting accurately, and G"d is talking out of both sides of G"d's mouth or there's something amiss here. How can it be that the children of Israel did not help G"d to achieve this victory, yet are the people who will not be false to G"d.
And, as if that's not confusing enough, the rabbis decided that the Masoretes must have made a scribal error in the text of 64:9. As written (Keriv) the text says "and in all their affliction [G"d] was not afflicted." Well, the rabbis would have none of that! An uncaring G"d, unmoved by the affliction of G"d's chosen people? No, this would not do. So they declared that the text should be read "and in all their affliction, G"d was afflicted" (or, as the JPS puts it "Afflicted in their affliction...") It's a simple matter for them. Although the written text uses the Hebrew word "lo" - lamed, alef meaning "no" or "not," the spoken (koreh) text is "lo" - lamed-vav. This simple alteration changes the meaning of the word to mean "to Him." Yet in the way it is spoken and heard, there is no difference. So it all seems kind of silly in a way, that the marginal notes in the text tell one to say "lo" lamed-vav instead of "lo" lamed-alef. Why not do the obvious and just (oh horror of horrors) change the text if they are so convinced that a scribal error had occurred? Seems to me that bending the meaning of the Torah to fit our own theology and understanding of what G"d is like takes a lot of bravado.
We should grapple, instead, with the text as written, and consider a G"d that was not afflicted in our affliction. As Reb Nachum the beggar says in one of Sholom Aleichem's story "so if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?" There are certainly a few examples of G"d treating us like a wise parent and letting us suffer for our own mistakes. So why, in this case, must it be different? Well, obviously, the rabbis did not want us heading into the High Holy Days with the idea of an indifferent G"d. Sort of makes the whole exercise pointless. Or does it?
We're told over and over that the atonement we make for our sins against G"d at the High Holy Days does not atone for sins "bein adam l'chavero" between one human being and another. Perhaps, by considering that at times G"d may have been indifferent to our suffering, we may be convinced to focus more on the sins against each other, and not worry so much about our sins against G"d. After all, G"d is tough, G"d can take it. And G"d is endlessly patient and compassionate. The secret to keeping G"d from acting indifferently to our suffering is perhaps demonstrating to G"d that we do indeed care about the suffering of our fellow human beings.
So this year, as I hear the haftarah read, I know what "lo" I'm going to hear. Try it. Maybe the idea of an indifferent G"d isn't such a bad thing to consider-as it really could spur us to change our behavior so that G"d will be less indifferent.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah U'mtukah,
©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760-L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.
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