There are times—actually many times—when I review the weekly haftarah in preparation of these articles, and I pause in amazement at the magnificence of the prophecies, or its poetic language or the insight of these spiritual giants. At the same time, I also recognize the brilliance of our ancient scholars who, later, established the custom of reading a specific prophetic portion on each Shabbat. Whether due to their ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration or their uncanny perception of what the future might bring, these weekly selections have helped familiarize the average Jew with the words of the Nevi’im. And, when we look back over the centuries and recognize how Torah study has varied in its focus from one generation to another or from one community to another, we appreciate even more how important these haftarot are to the “shul Jew,” one who attends the tefillot services regularly.
But there is a pitfall in this, as well. Chazal could establish only a relatively short selection of the words of the Nevi’im for the haftarah reading. As a result, we don’t always get the full impact of the Navi’s intent and, at times, can fail to understand what message Hashem’s agent was trying to relay to the nation. I believe that is what often happens when listening to this week’s haftarah.
The prophetic selection for this parsha of Vayikra, connects clearly to the Torah reading as it too discusses the sacrificial rite commanded by Hashem. And yet, we tend to focus upon those pesukim that censure Israel for her improper worship of Hashem, or—more precisely—for her complete failure to offer the sacrifices regularly. But that condemnation occupies only three verses (Sefer Yeshayahu 43: 22-24) of the entire reading—less than 10% of the haftarah! Why must we leave our Shabbat tefillah with the feeling that the Navi has, once again, condemned Israel—as we read so often in past haftarot—when, in fact, that was simply not true?!
Had we read the earlier chapters that precede this selection, we would realize that they bear messages of comfort. This section of the sefer begins with perek 40—a chapter that opens with the words: “Nachamu, nachamu, ami,”—a cry to the Nevi’im to comfort the nation—and begins a section of comfort. And, this 43rd perek that we read this week is also one of consolation—not condemnation! As we peruse the text, we come to realize that Yishayahu’s message is that although the nation has not been perfectly observant, although they had not observed the sacrificial rite regularly—nonetheless, Hashem will forgive them. Indeed, the very next pasuk after the three verses of “condemnation” is one that we recite every Yom Kippur when we urge God to forgive us: “Anochi, anochi, hu mocheh f’shoeche—It is I, Who will erase your transgressions,” “V’chatotecha lo ezkor—And not recall your sins.”
So, I urge you to read this selection—read it well—and see how the entire 44th chapter carries on with that theme, condemning the idolatry of the other nations and the uselessness of their worship of the false gods. Hashem’s reassurance of His forgiveness of Israel’s sins and His guarantee of the future geulah attests to the actual theme underlying Yishayahu’s words—a theme of comfort and of consolation, not of criticism and condemnation.
How fitting is this haftarah’s message to this parasha that introduces the laws of korbanot. As important as the sacrificial rite is—as vital as it might be to create a bond between the mortal and the immortal, the physical and the spiritual—it is not essential for the survival of our nation. The importance of teaching this truth to a nation that would see its spiritual centers destroyed three times (two Batei Mikdash and the Mishkan) is inestimable. We need only look to our past history to realize the truth of Yishayahu’s words.
Or, we can simply read the final message of the haftarah: “Let the heavens sing and the foundations of earth break out in song … for Hashem has redeemed Jacob and has been glorified through Israel!” A truth we see today!
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.