The Jews suffered greatly during the long years of Babylonian exile. Their king, Jehoiachin had been imprisoned for many years. They had lost faith and hope in their future. In times of despair and desolation the Hebrew prophets played a profound role in bolstering the people and their trust in God. In this haftarah Isaiah speaks words of comfort and consolation to the people. He reminds them that the covenant that the Jewish people have with Adonai is eternal. Isaiah tells the people that God has not forgotten them and they will be restored to their own land.
From Torah to Haftarah: Making the Connection
This week's Torah portion, Ekev, reminds the Israelites that they must maintain their faith and bond to Adonai even though they are living among the idol-worshipping Canaanites. In the haftarah Isaiah reassures the people that the covenant between God and the people is everlasting even though they are living outside the Land among strangers in Babylonia. The message in both the Torah and the haftarah is clear, that despite the conditions under which the Israelites find themselves living, their connection to God and the covenant endures.
"The Eternal God has taught me how to speak, even to those tired of speech. Morning by morning God awakens me, awakens my ear: teaching me to listen." (Isaiah 50:4)
In this verse, Isaiah credits God with giving him two skills, the ability to speak and the ability to listen.
In the midrash we read that Isaiah was in his house of study, when he heard God ask, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Isaiah replies, "Here am I; send me." The Holy One warned him: "Isaiah, My children are obstinate, troublesome. If you are willing to suffer insults and be smitten by them, you may go on My mission, but if not, you may not go." Isaiah responds, "Even if such be my portion, I am ready...." (The Book of Legends - Sefer ha-aggadah 477:82)
This haftarah is the second of seven consecutive haftarot called the haftarot of consolation. These haftarot begin on the Shabbat after Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. These haftarot seek to console the Jewish people on the Jerusalem temples and the desolation of the Land. Isaiah uses his ability to speak to console the people and to convince them that God maintains the covenant with them despite the circumstances under which they are living.
In the focus verse, Isaiah says that God awakens him each and every morning teaching him how to listen. Listening plays a central role in Judaism.
The Sh'ma reads: "Hear (Listen) Israel, Adonai is God, Adonai is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4) What are we being told to listen to? Initially one might say, the commandment that the name of our God is Adonai and that our God is one and not many. If we expand what we are to "hear" beyond this verse and read the verses, which follow, we learn about many things we are to "hear." These verses, known as the V'ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:5-9) call upon each of us to love God with all one's heart, with all one's soul, and with all one's might. We are to teach these words to our children, talking of them in our homes, on our travels, when we lie down and when we rise up. We are to bind them on our hand and between our eyes (t'fillin). We are to write them on the doorposts of our homes (mezuzah) and on our gates.
In Pirke Avot it is written that one acquires Torah through forty-eight qualities, on of which is shmiat ha-ozen -- being a careful listener. (Pirke Avot 6:6)
When we listen with love, understanding, an open mind and an open heart we truly hear what is being said to us.
- Why would Isaiah or any prophet need both the ability to speak and the ability to listen?
- God warned Isaiah about the people, telling him that the people would insult and smite him with their words. In the haftarah Isaiah speaks words of hope and renewal to the people. These are examples of using speech to deliver inspirational as well as critical purposes. Clearly, words can have both negative and positive impact. When have you used speech for a positive purpose and when have you used it for a negative purpose? How do you decide how to use your words?
- Isaiah uses language to console the people. Describe a time when you used speech to console someone. What words did you use? Isaiah is also conscious of people who are "tired of speech." Who might these people be? When have words tired you out? How did you return to a state of being able to listen?
- From the Talmud we learn, "There are times when a person is silent and receives a reward for silence; and there are other times when a person speaks up and receives a reward for speaking up" (Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 115b). What might be a reward for silence? For speech? Discuss situations when silence or speech might be rewarded. When have you been rewarded for speaking and when have you been rewarded for keeping silent/being a careful listener?
- When has it been important in your life to practice the Jewish ethical value of shmiat ha-ozen -- being a careful listener?
- Take another look at the COMMENTARY on the Sh'ma and consider: When we listen attentively to the Sh'ma what laws and habits are we to aspire to?
- Ask each Family Shabbat Table Talk participant to share qualities that contribute to being a careful listener.
Taking a stand ...on speaking thoughtfully and on shmiat ha-ozen -- careful listening. During the next week have family members contribute to a family journal in which they record times when they spoke thoughtfully and used careful listening. Next Shabbat spend time reading it together.
Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,379–1,408; Revised Edition, pp. 1,226–1,250;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,089–1,114