Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Parshat Shemot

As we have mentioned in the past, the haftarah that is read this week depends on which beit knesset one attends. On those occasions when the minhag of the Ashkenazim and that of the Sepharadim differ, it is primarily over which part of the specific perek or of the perakim is read. On rare instances, the minhagim might actually differ as to which perakim of the same sefer are read—but always within the same sefer. This Shabbat, however, the Sepharadim read their haftarah from Sefer Yirmiyahu (prakim 1-2) while the Ashkenazim choose a selection from another book entirely, Sefer Yeshayahu (perakim 27-28). (Interestingly, the Teimanim have yet a third minhag, as they read from Sefer Yechezkel, perek 16.)

The logic of the Sephardic reading seems clear, as it connects the choice and inauguration of Yirmiyahu into Hashem’s service as His navi with the same experience of Moshe Rabbeinu, which is related to us in the Torah reading. Both prophets receive their “calling” from Hashem and both are reluctant to take on that responsibility with the claim that they are not effective orators. But the connection of the Ashkenazic reading to the parsha is difficult to understand.


HaRav Yehuda Shaviv suggests a number of possible connections, among them the fact that the haftarah alludes to the exodus from Egypt some two or three times. And yet, he comments, this very fact adds to the difficulty of finding a connection to the parsha. The haftarah, although including some pesukim of criticism and condemnation, is primarily a vision of the yet-to-come redemption. This promise of a glorious future includes the well-known prophecy of how Hashem will sound the great shofar and bring the lost and the wayward back to Yerushalayim to worship God there (27:13). The parsha, on the other hand, does not describe the geula but rather the anguish and oppression of the galut in Mitzrayim! Why then the choice to read this haftarah?

I would suggest that a key to solving this problem may be found in the latter part of the haftarah, the section that condemns the hedonistic behavior of Yehuda, the southern kingdom. There we find Yeshayahu asking the question: “Et mi yoreh de’ah…?” “To whom shall I teach knowledge…or explain my message?” The people, the navi claims, are on an almost infantile level, incapable of understanding God’s message. He therefore concludes that they must be taught “kav lakav, tzav latzav,” “commandment by commandment, line by line” as a child would be taught.

We often forget that one of the purposes of the Egypt “experience” was that of education. Not simply teaching Paroh and the Egyptians of Hashem’s existence and His power (remember how Paroh responds to Moshe’s initial request by stating “I do not know God”), but also educating Bnei Yisrael as to Who Hashem is and what He wants of them. And this teaching is done one plague by one plague, one mitzvah by one mitzvah, to a nation whose knowledge of God was limited, if not almost childish.

It was, perhaps, this point that our ancient scholars saw in the words of Yeshayahu that convinced them that this selection was a fitting one for the parsha of Shemot.

In effect, the galut experience is not to be seen as conflicting with the idea of geulah. Rather, as the Maharal suggests, galut is a necessary experience for our eventual geula.

A lesson so important for us to understand.

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.