17 Aug 2017

Haftara for Re’eh 5777: Red in Tooth and Claw

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Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

— Alfred Lord Tennyson

Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5


This is the third of seven readings of consolation. Here Yishaya promises a rebuilding of Tziyon with precious gems and that her righteous citizens will be protected from every danger. God calls upon the people to absorb His word and turn to Him. The prophecy is filled with assurances of covenant, protection and the freedom from fear.

The search for spiritual fulfilment that has been met with want will be fulfilled along with an attraction to Israel’s spiritual strength from nations that they have not previously known.


Earth is a hostile planet. While it is the only hospitable planet within several million light years to have brought forth life, survival on it is still replete with challenge. With all the beauty and pleasure that Earth offers its inhabitants, the majority of experience for all its species consists of hardship and struggle. One need not look far beyond Earth’s pristine blue-green veneer to see the ferocity of the wild that it harbours within. The chaotic nature of our environment requires intense energy and focus in order to survive and thrive.

One of the most confounding questions of theology is how we are to reconcile this harsh chaos with the existence of God. One of the more well-known, poetic attempts was made by Alfred Tennyson in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H.

He wrote In Memoriam after he learned that his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam had died suddenly of a fever at the age of 22. Tennyson, a God-fearing man, struggled with the death and was tormented with doubt regarding Divine justice and providence. He composed the short poems that comprise In Memoriam over the course of seventeen years (1833-1849), ultimately publishing them as a single lengthy poem in 1850.

Tennyson described nature to be ‘red in tooth and claw’; the bloody imagery is a symbol for the seemingly blind mercilessness of nature.

Tennyson, of course was not the first to address this doubt. The nature of God’s providence is a question that Judaism’s greatest minds have discussed for centuries. There is a principle that is put forth by several of our early sages that, unfortunately, has fallen out of favour in most modern-day orthodox treatments of the issue: that God’s knowledge is not synonymous with His providence. In other words, just because God knows does not mean that He cares. His personal attention and protection are dependent on the nature of the integrity, faithfulness and commitment of the individual.

For I [God] know him [Abraham]; he will instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of God by doing what is right and just. (Gen., 18:19) 

For I know him –  This is an expression denoting ‘affection’…for whoever holds a person in affection attaches him to himself, so that he knows him well and is familiar with him….

(Rashi, ibid.) 

For I know him – the ‘knowledge’ of God, which is His providence in the lower world, is aimed at protecting general species. Even human beings are subject to random occurrences…yet to those who are dedicated to Him, He sets His heart to know them individually so that His protection is continually connected to them.His awareness and attention will never leave them.

(Nahmanides, ibid.)  

For I know him – The language of providence. God’s ‘knowing’ someone is His care for him.When he says about Abraham ‘I know him’ He is excluding others who are not righteous.For God’s providence is not with others as it is with the righteous….

(Rabbenu Bahye, ibid.) 

The choice is in your hand, if you want to strengthen the contact [between you and God] and broaden its flow, do so. If you want to weaken and restrict it little by little until you block it, do so. This contact only gets stronger with active love and walking in the direction that I have explained….


Ostensibly, this sounds outrageous. Should a purely benevolent God not care about all of His creations equally by default? No. Consider: how could divine care that is a given, stagnant and ubiquitous be meaningful? What value would care have if the nature of the object being cared for was irrelevant? What’s more, how could the relationship ever be enhanced?

Caring relationships of real value are built and cultivated. They grow and develop. Faithfulness, thoughtfulness and attention are the precious currency of strong, viable connections. Relationships that exist without these elements are weak and artificial, and they do not weather challenge and difficulty well. Our relationship with God is no different. While God knows all, His interaction and attention to all is not equal. It rightfully depends on the quality and integrity of the relationship.

Basic relationship is assumed from the start.  Love from God for us exists simply because we are a living, conscious part of His world. After all, we are by our very birth, endowed with countless blessings.

God is good to all and His mercy is upon all His works. (Psalms, 145:9)

Yet intimacy with God is no more a default than it is in a relationship with another individual[2]. Relationship with the Creator draws us out of the natural chaos of the world. To the degree that our relationship is weak, is the degree that randomness runs in our lives.

It is relationship that makes the difference because the stuff of true relationships — righteousness, kindness, care and dedication — are antithetical to randomness, as they are by definition, thoughtful and intended. The only true way to tame the chaos of the universe is not by force, but by care. To the degree that someone cares about us is the degree that we are saved from the world’s tooth and claw. When God cares, it is the greatest salvation and protection of all.

Our haftara this week, speaks of living under God’s security and protection.

You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear from ruin, and it shall not come near you.Surely no harm can be done without My consent: whoever would harm you shall fall because of you…No weapon formed against you shall succeed, and every tongue that contends with you at law shall be defeated. Such is the lot of the servants of God, such their triumph through Me —declares the Lord. (54:14-17) 

Yishayah uses one line that tells us how it is achieved.

And all your children shall be students of God. And great shall be their peace. (54:13)

What is it to be students of God; to ‘know’ God? It is the same as how the sages above defined God’s ‘knowing’ us —  ‘knowing is an expression denoting affection’. As with anyone with whom we wish to ‘get to know’ and build a bond, we gain information, we become familiar with them — their expressions, personality, actions and thoughts. We pay attention to them by showing them care and by giving them our time. We use what we’ve learned about them to show them that what is meaningful to them, is of value to us. We let them know in various ways that they are precious. A relationship with God requires nothing less.

What is the path to love Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God’s] great name. (Rambam, Yesode haTorah, 2:2)

In just twelve verses our haftara presents the key to living under the protective wing of God. It is not rote, but righteousness; not habit, but honour; not mechanics but meaning.

You shall be established through righteousness. (54:14)

Just as randomness brings us danger and turmoil, it also brings us potential and opportunity. It gives us room to choose, grow, create and discover. It gives us the place in which we can invest and build so that the elements of our lives that are precious can be of our own making.

In their greatest manifestations, real relationships are not merely protections but the very beauty of being. All that is random falls away in their warmth. All that was confusing becomes clear, what was worrisome is soothed and what is uncertain, illuminated.

Tennyson came to learn this truth that so many of our great sages taught. We know that the cold, indifferent world, red in tooth and claw, is transformed into warmth and care by the red and beautiful human heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Moreh Nebukhim, III:51

[2] We are meant to draw comparisons in our relationship with God from our relationships with human beings in all of their facets. See for example: Deut., 8:5; Isaiah, 62:5. Cf. Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuba, 10:3.