Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vayeshev and the Haftarah's Call

This week we begin the gripping story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the youngest child of Jacob, born to his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob showers love and affection on Joseph. The brothers become jealous of him. One day they conspire to kill him, but instead throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. This is how Joseph and then his family, and then ultimately the Jewish people, end up in Egypt.

The tension quickly builds in the opening chapter. “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) How could Joseph’s very own brothers be so cruel? “Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:25) After throwing him into a pit, they callously sit down to eat.

And yet how often do we go about our days, eating our meals, as injustices are committed around us?

This was the prophets’ keen observation. Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that it was their pathos which forms the foundation of our Bible. He writes: “[The prophets] are some of the most disturbing people who ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being—the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”

The rabbis married a Haftarah portion, a selection from the prophets, with every Torah portion. Haftarah means to complete and thus the Haftarah completes, and compliments, the Torah portion. Vayeshev is paired with the first of the literary prophets, Amos who lived in the eighth century B.C.E. He castigates the people for their greed. He rails against oppression. “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course…” (Amos 2:6-7) The prophet appears to recall the sins of Joseph’s brothers. His warnings could very well have been directed against the brothers.

It is a mystery why the rabbis instituted the reading of the Haftarah. Some suggest it was during a time when the Torah reading was forbidden and so the Haftarah would offer hints of what people were unable to hear. Others suggest it was because people were growing increasingly unfamiliar with the prophets and the importance of their message. The Haftarah reminds us of our obligations to the world at large. Do we hear its message?

Too often we chant the Haftarah’s words but fail to take them into our hearts. This was one of the critiques the early Reform rabbis offered. We had forgotten to speak against society’s ills. “The Lord roars from Zion, shouts aloud from Jerusalem… Ah you who turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground.” (Amos 5:7) What will make us regain the prophetic spirit that is the heritage of Reform? What injustices will call us to regain our voice?

The world calls for our attention and concern. There is racism and violence, torture and poverty, terror and hunger.

The prophet demands that we not turn aside, that we pay more careful attention to the world’s travails. And yet Heschel rightly notes that the prophet speaks in an octave too high. How can we hear the shrill scream? He writes: “The prophet is sleepless and grave. The frankincense of charity fails to sweeten cruelties. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him who is sleepless and grave. Perhaps the prophet knew more about the secret obscenity of sheer unfairness, about the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference…”

And we continue with our meals.  Do we hear the prophet’s call?

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