06 Apr 2017

Haftara for Shabbat HaGadol (Tsav) 5777: Tell Me a Story

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Haftara for Shabbat HaGadol (Tsav) 5777 – Tell Me a Story

‘There is always a plan, the plan is for the common good, and it always demands the submission of  very large numbers of others who, if they do not comply, become the enemy.  The surest counter to such submission, even when the masses have long been subdued, is the individual voice which shines through the confusion of oppression like nothing else can.’

— Mark Helprin, Digital Barbarism

‘People said country kids couldn’t learn chess’

— Resident of Franklin County, Mississippi

Malakhi 3:4-24

This haftara is read on Shabbat HaGadol, the shabbat before Pesah by many communities, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. There are some (Jews from Aleppo included) who read the regular haftara that is coupled with the parasha of this shabbat. As this haftara speaks of the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people, it is read to introduce the first  redemption of the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage.


Malakhi is seen by the Hakhamim as the last of the prophets. He prophecies after the rebuilding of the Bet HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in 515 B.C.E. His words can be seen as God’s  last words  before sending us into Exile. ‘When the last prophets, Haggai, Zekharia and Malakhi died,  the Holy Spirit departed from Israel’ (Tosefta Sotah, 8:2).  

Malakhi assures the people that the day will come when the sacrificial offerings will again be received  favourably by God as in the days of old. Prior to this, however, God will address the nation’s transgressions  of law — especially in the failure to care for the orphan, widow and convert.  

The people’s denial of rebellion against God is raised and the silence that permeates society will be broken by individuals who dare to speak of God. To these conversations God will not only listen,  but He will record them and these people will be ‘His treasured possession’.

 The people are reminded to remember the Torah of God’s servant, Moshe. A day will come, with the arrival of Eliyahu the Prophet, when parents and children reconcile their differences and their hearts will reunite in peace.


Among the seven-thousand residents of Franklin County Mississippi, few ever move away. It lies in the remote, deep south and is described by some as the ‘Buckle of the Bible Belt’. Franklin County only has 2 street lights and only 7 of its 93 high school graduates this year will go on to university. Its population is the third smallest in the United States and among its poorest.

The children’s future dreams do not reach far beyond the county lines. In Franklin possibilities are not the stuff of everyday thought. There are not many options entertained because there are not many options that the residents of the county are exposed to. They are detached, poor, and not well-educated. In order for them to dream beyond their immediate circles they first need to become aware of possibilities. But the possible realities that we can live are limited by the field of our own imagination.

All of that has recently changed for the children of Franklin County[1]. An anonymous benefactor aware of the situation had an idea that he believed would help open the futures and freedoms of Franklin’s children. He wanted to teach them how to play chess, and he hired a man named Jeff Bulington to do it.

Chess has changed the lives of these children by teaching them to consider possibilities they had not imagined before.

A father of one of the children, Mitch Ham saw their freedom unfolding:

‘You always want to see your kids go further. And I think chess can be a vehicle to take ‘em there, you know? This gives them a window at a young age, that, ‘Hey, there’s a whole world out there. I don’t need to set my goals at making $8 an hour, I need to set my goals at whatever I want ‘em to be.’

An intriguing detail of the story is how Bulington teaches chess to the children. He tells stories.

Elizabeth and the stranger is just my adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood to the chess board. Elizabeth  needs to get down here to E1 where school is where she can be safe. It involves just simply teaching how a pawn moves and a king moves. Oh no! Is she going to make it?’

Stories have a unique and formidable power over us. They open our minds to possibilities bringing us into a different world. In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall explores why and how stories help us navigate life’s complexities. He argues that storytelling evolved to help ensure our survival. They allow us to imagine potential realities without having to actually live through them.

It is not surprising that the central mitsva on the night of Pesah is to tell a story[2]. Stories escort us into the hands of freedom. They are a ‘safe place’ in which we can experience everything from horror to bliss simply by allowing our minds to explore them. We can consider the repercussions of choice without risk.

Chess and the infinite stories that can be found within it, set free the children of Franklin county. It brought them out of the world of ‘what is’ and into the realm of ‘what if?’

Is it fun to see your kids dream a little bigger than the county line? Yes. Yes. So big that it’s almost like, “Come on, get real.” You know, it just gets so big…. They’ve become so immersed in the game, with its infinite number of possible moves, that when these  students finish playing chess, they go home — and play more chess….

All of us, on one level or another, can identify with the children of Franklin County and we are all moved by their story. We can see ourselves in them. All of us, to some degree are blind to our possibilities.

The root of freedom is thought and its branches are speech. Its leaves are actions and its fruits, change. Without the thoughts that give birth to it all, there is nothing but petrification.

What then, holds us back from thought and speech? One powerful restriction is society. Both broad and local. While society provides us with structure, boundaries and security, it also affects our thinking. We tend to think like those around us and are suspicious of new ideas that might prompt significant change and challenges our securities. When we know what everyone thinks, we can rely on it. We can be secure.

We also seek to validate our thoughts based on the acceptance of those around us. Being able to consider what is best for us in our own lives and in our lives as a social unit is a perpetual challenge. Individualistic thought is hard for us to maintain. The stronger the social unit the more elusive is true freedom. Our thoughts and character are fashioned by the community in which we live.

It is natural for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for  him to follow the local norms of behaviour.  (Rambam De’ot, 6:1)

Franklin County did not instil free thought and action into the minds of its residents. But do we? To what degree do we embrace original thinking, alternative approaches and differences in behaviour? Do we welcome in our families and communities the individualistic expressions and thinking of its members? Do we allow ourselves such thought or do we restrict our freedoms out of fear and hide within what is familiar and comfortable?

The haftara that we read on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat that introduces Pesah, the festival of our freedom, looks at where freedom begins: the bravery and courage to think and speak differently. Freedom begins with the audacity to say what no one else will.

Malakhi, the last of the prophets, whose words reverberate through the silence of exile, looked at society’s collective denial of the truth.

Should man defraud God? Yet you are defrauding Me and you ask, ‘How are we defrauding You?’  In tithe and contribution you are suffering under a curse, yet you  go on defrauding  Me – the entire nation!…You have spoken hard words against Me,  but you ask ‘What have we been saying…?’ (3:8,13)

The redeeming factor which creates the pathway to repair is courageous, honest speech between friends.

Then, those who revere God have been speaking to each other, and God listened and heard, and  it was noted in a diary before Him, for the sake of the ones who fear Him and meditate  on His name…They shall be My treasured possession…. (3:16,17)

It is with our dedication to speaking on the night of Pesah that we raise the mantle of freedom throughout the generations. From parent to child we tell the story each in our own way.

…So that you may recount in the ears of your child and of your child’s child how I have dealt with Egypt….(Ex., 10:2) You are to tell your child on that day saying: ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt. (ibid., 13:8)

Our discussions and questions rise like a symphony in the silence. And in true dialogue, in speaking and listening, people begin to think and entertain futures that may previously had been beyond them.

Malakhi’s prophecy predicts that in time the world will awaken fully and the collective consciousness of the planet will embrace freedom. We will welcome possibilities and celebrate change. At the same time we will recognise the value of the stories that our parents told us rather than see them as intrusions into our own. We will regard our parents’ way of life not with contempt but with an appreciation of its beauty and how it formed our own lives. ‘The hearts of parents will return to their children and the hearts of children will return to their parents’. We will find respect and love both in what was discovered before us and in what is still to come. We will see in each other’s eyes the delight of creation and the light of God that flows through each generation and the souls of humanity will rise in triumph as freedom rings.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] 60 Minutes Documentary: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/chess-program-creates-state-championship-team-in-rural-mississippi/

[2] Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hamets uMatsa, 7:1