Although there is only one book of Isaiah in the Tanach, some scholars believe that it was written by two different people, two centuries apart. Isaiah son of Amoz is thought to be the author of chapters 1 through 39 during his lifetime in the 8th century B.C.E. The Prophet often referred to as Deutero-Isaiah lived in the 6th century B.C.E. and is believed to have written chapters 40 through 66. In the Haftarot from the corresponding combined Torah portions of Nitzavim and Vayeilech, Deutero-Isaiah preaches to the people of hope and deliverance from their poverty and from their exile in Babylon.
From Torah to Haftarah: Making the Connection
In the weekly introduction to each Haftarah, Plaut (in The Haftarah Commentary) notes a connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah. In both Nitzavim and Vayeilech, however, he connects the Haftarot with the Shabbat on which they are read; the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hashana begins the season of repentence, renewal and forgiveness. It represents new beginnings and hope. Another connection is that Moses tells the people in parasha Nitzavim that God's commandments are not too difficult for the people to observe and that they will be rewarded for loving God. Isaiah echoes that in 56:1-2: "Maintain justice and do what is right, for My salvation is close at hand...Happy is the one who does this, the person that holds fast to it..."
"Seek the Eternal while there is still time; call out when God is near." (Isaiah 55:6)
As mentioned in the MAKING THE CONNECTION section above, this Haftarah is read on the Shabbat just before the beginning of the High Holidays. The sense of urgency voiced by Isaiah when he uses the phrase "while there is still time" reflects the ancient notion that the ten days between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur are the final ten day in the period of repentance begun on the first of Elul. On Rosh Hashanah we will greet people with the words "L'shanah tovah tikateivu." Literally, "May you be inscribed for a good year." The inscription refers to the Book of Life, an imaginary ledger in which God records our deeds and our fate. On Yom Kippur, during the neilah service, this book is said to be closed until the following year. If we are to believe the Rabbis, teshuvah, or turning toward God, is therefore critical if we want to be able to influence God's judgment. During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as the end of this opportunity approaches, we use the greeting "G'mar hatimah tovah," which translates as "May you be sealed in the Book of Life." It is our collective wish that we each find our way onto the page of the Book in which there is blessing.
According to the Sages, God is most accessible on the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This, however, may have more to do with our own state than any change in God's proximity. Perhaps because during this period of time we are most open to God and more conscious of God's role in our lives, God feels most present to us.
- Why do you think the Sages thought God would be more accessible between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, also known as Yamim Noraim or Days of Awe? Name some awesome aspects of the High Holidays in your house or temple or community. Do you think that there are times when God is "nearer" than others? When? Why? Do you do things differently when you think that God is near?
- Traditionally, it is believed that if we forgive others who have wronged us, God will forgive us for all that we've done (or not done). How does your family prepare for the High Holidays? Is there anyone with whom you need to make peace this season? How will you go about doing it? Discuss the challenges of letting go of grudges and anger. How do you feel after you have "made up" with someone with whom you have been previously fighting?
- The rabbis believed that forgiveness was achieved in three steps: teshuvah, t'filla and tzedaka (deeds of repentance, prayer, and tzedakah). How will you fulfill each of these categories during the High Holidays? What does each of these categories provide in terms of a path to forgiveness?
- The phrase used to describe the intensive self reflection of this time of year is "heshbon hanefesh," of "an account of the soul." The use of a word most often associated with money (heshbon) is curious but helpful. Rosh Hashanah is a good time to check all of your accounts, the spiritual as well as the fiscal. As a family, review your fiscal year. How much money have you saved? What have you chosen to spend money on? What contributions have you made? Based upon your review, develop a family financial plan for the coming year.
- The approach of the end of our opportunity for repentance is evidenced in many different ways. Beginning on the first of Elul the shofar is blown each morning. This is a communal wake-up call echoes the statement of Isaiah quoted in the FOCUS section. Additionally, Psalm 27 is added to the morning service. The Psalm tells us not to be afraid as God will always protect us. This is an important reminder at a time when facing God and ourselves can be difficult. Add Psalm 27 to your morning routine. At the Shabbat table discuss the impact of beginning the day with these words.
Taking a Stand
Rosh Hashanah is considered to be the birthday of the world. In many synagogues, the story of creation from Genesis will be read and we will recall that God declared the world to be "good." The American Jewish World Service is committed to restoring this original vision across the globe. Log onto to www.AJWS.org and see what you can do to help with the work of renewal.