19 Jan 2017

Haftara for Shemot 5777: Speaking Freely

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Haftara for Shemot 5777: Speaking Freely

‘In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence,

one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot’.

― Czesław Miłosz

‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephardim)


Yirmiyahu is known as the prophet who warned of and saw the destruction of the first Temple and the first exile of the Judaian Kingdom. Our haftara is taken from the opening chapter in which God charges the young prophet to speak to and rebuke the Kingdom of Judah. He is to without fear, ‘uproot, pull-down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant’ (1:10). God tells him that He has placed him as ‘a fortified city, an iron pillar and bronze walls against the whole land and against Judah’s kings, officers, priests and citizens’ (1:18-19) He will be attacked God says, but he assures him: ‘They will not overcome you, I will be with you to save you’ (1:19). All of this is to be achieved through Yirmiyahu’s rhetoric, to which he protests saying that he is unable to speak for he is too young. God assures him that he will place His words in Yirmiyahu’s mouth. In his prophetic vision, Yirmiyahu sees God reaching out to touch his mouth, thus imbuing him with words from God.


Creating narratives of our experiences, thoughts and feelings is an invaluable aspect of developing a coherent sense of self. Articulating concepts and feelings into words is an important step in getting to know ourselves. At times we may even be surprised at what we find ourselves saying or the way in which we express certain ideas that we hold in our heads.

Language integrates emotion with cognition and helps us find harmony between our feelings and our thoughts. It gives us the ability to regulate our emotions and achieve healthy relationships, and connects us to each other and to ourselves. When we fail to find the language to work through and articulate our thoughts, when we cannot communicate our feelings, we find ourselves living in virtual shackles, lacking in self-expression, achievement, and human connection. The ability to speak clearly is the ability to build our identity through understanding our own feelings and internal psychology.

This skill is hampered when we are afraid, stressed or nervous. When we are in such states of ‘threat’ our brains are hard-wired to automatically inhibit executive functioning, problem solving and emotional regulating. We essentially freeze in our tracks, just as our hunting and gathering ancestors would have at the first sense of predatory danger. Such behaviour is helpful for an animal in the wild in order to avoid detection and find safety but it is not usually helpful for thinking, speaking human beings who are self aware and have complex thoughts and feelings. Being able to voice our innermost thoughts is the ultimate hallmark of humanity and freedom.

It is significant, then, that Moshe, the ultimate liberator and freedom fighter in the Torah sees his capacity to speak as his greatest challenge.

And Moshe said to God: Please, God, I am not a man of words!…for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I! (Ex., 4:10)

It is this point of freedom and liberty that the Sephardi haftara highlights. Yirmyahu, like Moshe, is concerned about his ability to speak.

And I replied: Ah! My Lord, God! I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a young man. (1:6)

They know that the only way they can liberate the people from the shackles of slavery, whether it be of the body or the mind or both, is if they are adept at speaking. God’s response is to ensure their capacity as orators.

To Moshe:

God said to him: Who placed a mouth in human beings or who makes one mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, God? So now go! I myself will be there with your mouth….(Ex., 4:11-12)

To Yirmiyahu:

And God said to me do not say ‘I am still a young man’, but go wherever I send you and speak whatever I command you. Have no fear of them…God put out His hand and touched my mouth, and God said here, I have put my words in your mouth. (1:7-8)

A prophet is at his or her core, a freedom fighter. They speak to people about their vices and encourage them to break free of them and live purposefully and deliberately. A prophet must therefore be a human being who has achieved a high level of self-mastery, and is able to fluently articulate his wisdom.

Prophecy only comes to someone who is great in wisdom, powerful in self-control, and that his creative drives do not overpower him in any capacity. Rather, he with his knowledge controls his drives, always. (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Yesodei HaTorah, 7:1)

The meaning of the very word for prophet in Hebrew, נביא, comes from the root נבא meaning to speak or proclaim.

Yirmiyahu will go on to use some of the most moving and soaring prose in the Bible and Moshe will end up encapsulating the entirety of Torah in his book of Debarim — literally, ‘the book of words’.

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel…Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel all that God had commanded him concerning them…Moshe set out to explain this instruction….(Deut., 1:1,3,5)

The people of Israel said: ‘You once said that you were not a man of words and now you have so much to say!’ (Midrash Tanhuma, Debarim 1)

The Sephardim focus on the opening parasha and its recounting of our national freedom. It emphasises the importance of speech in the free human being, and recognises that it is with our language that we work through our problems, express our feelings, convey our empathy, and achieve wholeness and healing in our lives. It is with our language that we find paths to overcome the fears and stresses that otherwise keep us from taking risks and learning new ideas. With our speech we liberate ourselves from the psychological and emotional confines that hold us back from being free to live in the most effective and productive way. We unshackle ourselves from dysfunctional behaviors and relationships through being able to define ourselves and express our internality.

The brave ones who yearn to live in freedom and with a strong identity, make efforts to speak out their problems, and articulate their thoughts and feelings. It is in our precious words that human freedom is born.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


Parsha Perspectives


I           Shemot 

1          Transition (1:1-7)

2          Burdens in Egypt (1:8-22)

Enslavement of the Bnei Yisrael (1:8-14);

Pharaoh commands infanticide (1:15-22)

3          Development of Moshe (2:1-22)

Birth and hiding (2:1-10);

Kills, runs away, resettles in Midyan (2:11-22)

4a        Covenant: God remembers Yisrael (2:23-25)

4b        Burning Bush Revelation: Mission (3-4:17)

God promises to save Yisrael (3:1-10);

Moshe doubts God’s method (3:11-22);

Signs (4:1-9);

Aharon is to assist Moshe (4:10-17)

5          Circumcision on the road to Egypt (4:18-26)

6a        Failure (4:27-6:1)

Moshe with Aharon gather the elders and convinces

them of God’s plans (4:27-31);

Face Pharaoh, but slavery just gets worse (5:1-19);

Moshe complains to God, but… (5:20-6:1)


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