27 Jan 2017

Haftara for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh (Va’era/Shebat 5777): Circuit Breakers 

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Haftara for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh (Va’era/Shebat 5777): Circuit Breakers

‘The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn to change’.— Carl Rogers

 ‘There is no present or future, only the past happening again and again, now’. — Eugene O’Neill 

Isaiah 66:24


Our haftara is taken from the last chapter of Yishaya. The penultimate verse makes explicit reference to Rosh Hodesh: ‘And it shall come to pass, that every new moon, and every Sabbath, shall all flesh come to bow down to the ground before Me, says the Lord’. (66:23) The prophecy begins with a criticism of Israel, yet, the bulk of the prophecy highlights the Israel of the future that will be post-Teshuba (repentance/return). It speaks of the opening of boundaries, rebirth, renewal, and return.


There are times in life when we feel we are going around in circles. We meet the same problems, challenges and difficulties over and over again and we don’t feel as if we are succeeding in fully overcoming them. We are after all creatures of habit, and our minds are set up to think based on information and experiences that we already know or have learned. We are so prone to habit that we have all found ourselves doing the same thing in the same way while expecting different outcomes.

Novelty of thought and behaviour is, therefore, quite difficult for us. Even when we believe that we are thinking in new ways, more often than not we are only introducing new details into old systems. We alter what we think rather than how we think and believe that we have genuinely changed. These closed circuits of our minds are difficult enough to break free from when they occur automatically. They are even more difficult to break away from when we voluntarily engage in and reinforce them.

Novelty and complexity are the enemies of safety and security, but they are also the passports to spiritual, psychological and emotional growth and renewal. In order to master our own lives and live in an ever changing world in a conscious and productive way, we must adjust our thinking — sometimes radically — in order to remain fully engaged in reality’s unfolding.

It is not easy. Our thinking is primarily based on self-favourable and anxiety-reducing patterns. In order to resist stepping out of our closed circuits into novel thought we avoid, rationalise or procrastinate. Our minds are masters of illusion and using illusion generators to see beyond illusion has its limits.

But people who favour reality over comfort and freedom over security, position themselves in ways that help expose them to new ideas and other people who can disrupt their close-circuited, self-reinforced system of thought. There are many ways that we can learn to see and think truthfully and clearly. It requires vulnerability, intellectual honesty, surrounding ourselves with people and friends who are willing to be honest, and questioning our assumptions about the ways in which our brains distort and mismanage information. Ultimately, it is the celebration of what is new.

So important is novelty of thought and action in Judaism that we base the months of our year on the waning and waxing cycles of the moon. We see its constant renewal as a signal and encouragement for our own.

To the moon He said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those
He carried from the  womb [Israel], for they are destined to be renewed like it.
(Prayer for the New Moon)

The word for month in Hebrew, hodesh – חודש comes from hadash – חדש meaning new. At the beginning of every month we celebrate the new possibilities and opportunities that this new moon cycle might bring to our lives. But we know that the novelty can only draw from one source. The infinite and omnipotent source of all being, God.

It is this understanding that is the tenor of the special haftara we read this Shabbat for Rosh Hodesh. It opens with God asserting that He cannot be contained; that His presence fills heaven and earth.

So says God: The heaven is My throne And the earth is My footstool:
What house could you possibly build for Me, what place could
serve as My abode? (66:1)

He is neither bound nor dependent on our attempts to restrict Him, and can surprise us with ever changing circumstances. The very heavens and earth can be made anew.

For as the new heaven and the new earth which I will make shall endure by My will
—declares the Lord— So shall your seed and your name endure. (66:22)

The haftara presents the new in various ways, whether it be new world events[1] or new paths forward for those suffering loss[2].

To be open to and absorb such surprises and new paths in life takes courage and a dedication to living in a way that embraces new ways and means. It requires us to always be ready to question.

This is the true meaning of the word haredim (lit., ‘ones who tremble’) used twice in our haftara. A haredi is never complacent and is prepared to respond and ‘tremble’ in response to God’s novel ways. A true haredi is ever-ready to break free from the closed-circuit thinking of the mind and find pathways to new and more relevant and effective actions.

All this was made by My hand, and thus it all came into being —declares the Lord. Yet to such a one I look: To the one…who trembles [hared – חרד] from My word.

In the Jewish calendar each month provides us with an opportunity for cleansing and renewal. It is a time in which, with the Hallel, we thank God for the wonders that are possible in life and for giving us real pathways out of our self-imposed confines of thought and action into new and rejuvenating worlds.

I will not die but live…the stone the builders rejected has become the main cornerstone! (Tehillim, 118)

Ultimately, it promises that those in the world and among the people of Israel who favour true freedom will indeed break free from what seems like hopeless situations to see new and fruitful futures.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck
[1] 66:22

[2] 66:13


Parasha Perspectives

II    Va’era 

6b                Fulfilling the Covenant (6:2-9)
7                  Reiteration of the mission (6:10-12)
8a                Moshe and Aharon given the command (6:13)
8b                Genealogy up to Moshe and Aharon (6:14-28)
8c                Return to the command (6:29-30)
9                  History of future: God unfolds plan  (7:1-7)
10a              Stick to snake (7:8-13)
10b              Warning of Plague of Blood (7:14-18)
10c               Plague of Blood (7:19-25)
11a              Warning and Plague of Frogs (7:26-8:11)
11b              Plague of Lice (8:12-15)
11c               Warning and Plague of Gnats (8:16-28)
12                Warning and Plague of Cattle (9:1-7)
13a              Plague of Boils (9:8-12)
13b              Warning of Plague of Hailstones (9:13-21)
14                Plague of Hailstones (9:22-35)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS