24 Elul 5773
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Nitzavim-Va’yelech: The final Shabbat of the year – the final comfort
by Daniel Pinner
“I will intensely rejoice in Hashem, my soul shall exult in my God, because He has clothed me in garments of salvation; a robe of righteousness He has draped over me, like the bridegroom dressed as gloriously as the High Priest, like the bride who adorns herself with her jewelry” (Isaiah 61:10, from the Haftarah).
After the Roman pagans destroyed the second Holy Temple, our Sages decreed that for the three Shabbatot during the Three Weeks of mourning, the chilling, terrifying prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah, castigating Israel for their sins and foretelling the coming destruction, would constitute the Haftarot.
And then for the next seven weeks, we would be comforted from Shabbat to Shabbat by Isaiah’s majestic and inspiring prophecies of the magnificent future that awaits us. These ten Haftarot – from the first Shabbat after the ninth of Av until the last Shabbat of the year – are appropriate not to the Torah readings of their respective Shabbatot, but rather to the season.
The seventh and last of the Haftarot of Consolation is the final Haftarah of the year, which we will be reading this Shabbat. The previous six Haftarot – Va-et’chanan, Eikev, Re’eh, Shoftim, Ki Teitze, and Ki Tavo – have all been selections from Isaiah Chapters 40 to 60, and all are the prophet’s ecstatic prophecies of the wonderful future that awaits us in the time of the return to Zion.
And now, this final Haftarah of the year, the Haftarah that introduces us to Rosh ha-Shanah, is the ecstatic response to God: “I will intensely rejoice in Hashem, my soul shall exult in my God….” These are the words either of Jerusalem upon the return of the exiles (Targum Yonatan, Radak) or of Israel upon their return from exile (Radak, Ibn Ezra, Metzudat David).
Then comes the riposte: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness will come out like brilliance and her salvation will burn like a torch” (Isaiah 62:1). This is either God Himself responding to Israel while they are yet in exile (Targum Yonatan, Rashi, Radak), or the words of Israel in exile (Ibn Ezra).
The Targum Yonatan renders: “Until Zion’s redemption is wrought I will give no respite to the nations, and until consolation comes to Jerusalem I will give no peace to the kingdoms, until its light will be revealed as the bright dawn, and its redemption as a burning fire.” God is announcing: not only is there is no peace for Israel in exile, there is no peace for the entire world as long as Israel is in exile.
The prophet continues by depicting Israel and Jerusalem in the days of the final redemption: “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed guardians all day and all night – they will never be silent; O you who are Hashem’s remembrancers, do not keep quiet! And do not give Him any quietude until He will establish and until He will make Jerusalem a praise in the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7).
The prophet exhorts us that though Jerusalem’s walls be protected by the guardians – whether these guardians are our Forefathers (Targum Yonatan), or angels (Shmot Rabbah 18:5, Radak), or those who mourn for Zion (Metzudat David) – nevertheless: give God Himself no rest until the redemption is complete!
And the prophet continues: “Hashem has sworn by His right hand and by His mighty arm: I will no longer give your grain as food to your enemies, and foreigners will no longer drink your wine for which you toiled; instead its harvesters shall eat it and will praise Hashem, and its gatherers shall drink it in My holy courtyards” (Isaiah 62:8-9).
The prophet here uses the word yochluhu (“they shall eat it”), which word appears only four times throughout the Tanach. The first time was in our last few days in Egypt, when the slavery had already finished and we were poised on the very threshold of redemption. God commanded us to sacrifice the Paschal Lamb: “They shall eat the meat on this night fire-roasted and matzot; with bitter herbs yochluhu, they shall eat it” (Exodus 12:8).
The second time the word “yochluhu” appears in the Tanach is almost a year after the Exodus, when the Kohanim were consecrated and the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) was inaugurated. “Moshe said to Aaron and his sons: Cook the meat at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and there you shall eat it and the bread which is in the basket of the Inauguration-Offerings, as I have commanded saying, Aaron and his sons yochluhu, shall eat it” (Leviticus 8:31).
The third time the word yochluhu appears in the Tanach is about a month later, when God told the men who were ritually impure to sacrifice the Paschal Lamb on Pesach Sheni, a month after Pesach, on the 14th of Iyyar: “In the second month, on the fourteenth of the month, in the afternoon, he will make [the Pesach sacrifice]; with matzot and bitter herbs yochluhu, they shall eat it” (Numbers 9:11).
The fourth time the word yochluhu appears in the Tanach is in this prophecy of Isaiah’s.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343), in his commentary to Exodus 12:8, notes the significance of this word and the contexts in which it appears. Just as in Egypt every Jew was commanded not to leave the entrance of his house (Exodus 12:22), so too Aaron and his sons were commanded not to leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 8:33).
And similarly, says the Ba’al ha-Turim, the word yochluhu links the final redemption with the first redemption. The redemption from Egypt serves as the paradigm for the final redemption, and the prophet alludes to this by depicting the final redemption with the word yochluhu, recalling the redemption from Egypt.
One of the essential components of the final redemption is the vanquishing of Israel’s historic enemies. And sure enough, the Haftarah continues with Isaiah’s depiction of Israel’s victory over Edom: “Who is this coming from Edom, with reddened garments from Botzrah? This One Who is glorified by His raiment, girded with the greatness of His power? – ‘It is I, speaking with righteousness, mighty to save’” (Isaiah 63:1).
The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) writes, “Botzrah was a great city of Edom, which is why Edom is called by the name Botzrah/” The Metzudat Zion (“Fortress of Zion”, commentary on the Prophets and Writings written by Rabbi David Altschuler and his son, Rabbi Hillel Altschuler, Galicia, 18th century) suggests that mi-Botzrah (“from Botzrah”) is a cognate of mivtzar (“fortress”).
The Edomite city of Botzrah lies about 45 kilometres (28 miles) south and slightly east of the southern tip of the Dead Sea, in what used to be Edom. Today it is the town of Beitzeirah in Arab-occupied trans-Jordan (currently known as the Kingdom of Jordan).
The Ba’al ha-Turim (commentary to Genesis 36:33) notes that the word mi-Botzrah (“from Botzrah”) occurs only in two contexts in the entire Tanach. Parashat Vayishlach concludes with Esau’s genealogy: “And these are the descendants of Esau – he is Edom…” (Genesis 36:1). After detailing Esau’s – Edom’s – descendants, the Torah continues, “And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king of the Children of Israel reigned: Bela son of Beor reigned in Edom and the name of his city was Dinhabah. And Bela died, and Jobab son of Zerah, mi-Botzrah (‘from Botzrah’), reigned in his stead” (vs. 31-33, repeated verbatim in 1 Chronicles 1:44).
Writes the Ba’al ha-Turim: “In the future time yet to come, Botzrah will be punished together with Edom because they established a king for them. This is the inference of ‘…reddened garments from Botzrah.’”
The Ba’al ha-Turim seems to base his comment on a somewhat cryptic Midrash: “‘And Bela died…’ – this can be compared with a king’s son who was involved in litigation with someone whose sustenance came to its end. Someone else came and supplied his sustenance, whereupon the king said: I will deal only with the one who supplied him with his sustenance! This is what God said: The kingship had already been uprooted from Edom – and then along came Botzrah and supplied them with kings! Therefore I will deal only with Botzrah, as it says ‘For Hashem will make a sacrifice in Botzrah and a mighty slaughter in the land of Edom’ (Isaiah 34:6)” (Bereishit Rabbah 83:3).
Eight times the Tanach mentions Botzrah. Two of these are the historical reference “Bela died, and Jobab son of Zerah, from Botzrah, reigned in his stead” (Genesis 36:33 and 1 Chronicles 1:44). The other six are all prophecies of the terrible fate that God has in store at the end of days for Botzrah and Edom and the surrounding nations who dare oppress His people (Isaiah 34:6, 63:1; Jeremiah 48:24, 49:13, 49:22; and Amos 1:12).
Our Haftarah continues: “Why are Your garments red, and Your clothes like one who trod the wine-vat? – ‘I alone have trodden the wine-press, from among the nations no man was with Me. I trod on them in My anger and I trampled them in My fury, and their life-blood spurted out on My clothes, thus I soiled all My garments’” (Isaiah 63:2-3).
Almost seven centuries before the prophet Isaiah lived, Moshe, beginning his farewell address to Israel, told them of God’s admonishment not to harass Edom: “You shall not provoke them, because I shall not give you any of their land even as much as the sole of the foot to tread on, because to Esau I have given Mount Seir as an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 2:5).
The Ba’al ha-Turim picks up on the unusual phraseology here. The Torah uses the word ad for “even as much as,” although the word ad literally means “until.” Writes the Ba’al ha-Turim: “‘…even as much as (ad) the sole of the foot to tread on’ – until (ad) ‘a star will tread forth from Jacob’ (Numbers 24:17) – until (ad) the time will come, as it says ‘I alone have trodden the wine-press.’"
The Ba’al ha-Turim’s insight here is based on several Midrashic sources (primarily Pesikta Zuta). What this means is that although we were forbidden to conquer so much as single step of Edomite territory when returning to Israel from Egypt, there will be no such limitation in the days of the final redemption.
This prophecy of Isaiah’s is the passage which our Sages decreed would always be read on the final Shabbat of each year. This is the last of the seven Haftarot of Consolation. This is the prophetic message which our Sages desired to infuse us with as we approach Rosh ha-Shanah.
After three weeks of mourning exile and the destruction of Jerusalem and our entire country, we have seven weeks of consolation. And this week’s Haftarah is the final comfort as we prepare to leave the spent year behind and enter the new year of 5774.
Let the new year and its blessings begin!