17 Feb 2017

Haftara for Yitro 5777: The Heart of the Matter

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Haftara for Yitro 5777: The Heart of the Matter

‘We accept the love we think we deserve’.

— Stephen Chbosky,

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Isaiah 6:1-13 (Sephardim)


 The 6th chapter of Yishaya is traditionally seen by our Hakhamim as Yishaya’s inaugural mission as a prophet of God. Yishaya sees God sitting on a great throne within the Bet Hamikdash (Holy Temple). His robes fill the Temple hall. Seraphim (heavenly angels) hover in attendance, each with six wings: two covered the face, two covered the legs and with two they flew.

 They call to each other saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is God of Hosts! His glory fills all the earth!’ The building shakes from the voice of the angels’ call and the House fills with smoke. Yishaya realises that he is standing before God Himself and realises that his lips are impure and that he lives within a nation whose lips are impure. Upon hearing Yishaya come to this realisation a Seraph takes a burning coal with tongs and touches Yishaya’s mouth thus purifying him. Yishaya then hears God ask: ‘Who shall we send? Who will go for us?’ Yishaya responds: ‘Here I am! Send me!’ God sends Yishaya on what seems like an anti-mission. He is not to get the people to heed him but rather, ensure that they don’t. God tells him:

‘Dull that people’s heart, shut its ears, seal its eyes — lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also understand in its heart and repent and save itself’. There are to be no quick fixes afforded to the callous nation any longer.

But Yishaya is told that there will be an element of the people that will remain and truly awaken, and rise again.


Before the Torah is given to the Children of Israel, God cautions Moshe to first take care of two important issues. Firstly he is told to open the proceedings with a precise preamble. Its purpose is to define and qualify all that will later be spoken. It is, in no uncertain terms, an invitation to the nation and their descendants for a close covenantal relationship with God.

Moshe went up to God.

God called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Yaakob

and declare to the children of Israel:

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings

and brought you to Me.

Now then, if you will listen to Me faithfully and keep My covenant,

you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.

Indeed, all the earth is Mine,

but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Ex.,19:3-6) 

Secondly he is to make sure that Mount Sinai is properly cordoned off, so that when God’s presence is manifest upon it the people will not storm the mountain in rapture.

You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall die’. (ibid., 19:12)

Before the Ten Commandments and the other legal details are given over to the people, God sets the tone for the relationship, with a declaration of love and boundaries. We can see that the entire Torah is meant only to be heard and received within that context. It is a book of covenant before it is a book of law.

Then he [Moshe] took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that God has spoken we will faithfully do!” (ibid., 24:7)

But close relationships are tricky for many of us. They are difficult with other human beings, and more so with God. There are those of us for whom commitment is difficult and who find the sharing and attention required for successful relationships the cause of considerable anxiety.

Only recently have we begun to scratch the surface to understand our psychological need for attachment and our fear of it. There is more than one theory that psychologists posit regarding what causes us to fear connection with others, but in all theories, a common denominator is how we experienced attachment in our infancy; if in childhood we learn and believe that we are worthy of love and belonging then we will be more able to pursue it and accept it in our adult lives.

The way we accepted God’s invitation to engage in close and loving covenant would have had its roots in our experience of growing up as slaves.  We knew servitude and we knew it well, and it would have been instinctive to respond immediately to the invitation with: ‘Whatever God says we will do!’[1] But while we were prepared to be subservient, love and commitment was not so easy. We were not prepared to share ourselves with God. We did not yet know how. We wanted to be protected by Him, but we needed to develop a sense of self before we could properly share ourselves with Him.

When God speaks to the nation at Mount Sinai, and His presence is manifest in its grandeur and intensity, the response is a nation stepping back rather than forward:

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.

“You speak to us,” they said to Moshe, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”

Moshe answered the people, “Be not afraid…” But the people remained at a distance. (ibid., 20:14-17)

They agree to obey, but they remain distant. Obeying is praiseworthy, but should be a vehicle towards building the mutual respect and closeness that define a relationship.

Love God your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut., 6:6)

To be able to truly love is seen by the Torah as a sign of greatness.

One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it.

 This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our Patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, “he who loved Me,” for his service was only motivated by love. (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Teshuba 10:2)

 The parasha of Torah does not showcase the value of academics as one might expect. Instead, it showcases relationship — its dynamics, rewards and challenges — Torah is but a framework for it as we are taught by our greatest sages.

There was an incident involving a gentile who came before Hillel and said: ‘Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot’. He converted him and said to him: ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study’. (Shabbat, 31a)

In the Talmud, God is called רחמנא – Rahamana – the One Who loves[2], the scholars are called חברים – haberim – friends, and the opinions offered are nothing less than the expressions of the heart. Each approach is אליבא – – aliba – ‘upon the heart’ of the one who spoke it.

It is this commitment to relationship that is presented in our haftara in contrast to the parasha and the people’s reticence. Yishaya does something in this haftara that no other prophet has ever done — including Moshe. He offers his services to God, rather than God pressing him to act as He did with all the others.

 Then I heard the voice of God saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am; send me!” (6:8)

Yishaya was special in that although he was aware of his inadequacy to be present among the seraphim (lit. ‘the burning ones’ — called so because of their ‘burning love’ for God), he didn’t allow it to keep him from being purified and welcomed into God’s inner sanctum. He allowed himself intimacy and it was readily offered to him with all its responsibility.

I cried…“I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips;

Yet my own eyes have beheld The King Lord of Hosts.”

Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal,

which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.

He touched it to my lips and declared,

“Now that this has touched your lips,

Your iniquity has left and your transgression purged away.” (6:5-7)

 Yishaya is the only prophet who volunteers for God. When he sees God, rather than escape, he moves nearer. It is because of his openness to become close and his willingness to bear the responsibilities of a relationship with God, that he is given all of the prophecies of warmth, love and comfort to the Jewish people. They are known as Nehamot Yishaya – the consolations of Yishaya. Our haftara is chosen because it expresses this openness to love and connection.

Ironically Yishaya’s first charge is to be wary of making the people listen to him. They have sunk into cold detachment. He is told to leave them in their state of indifference, as love cannot be forced, nor can it be artificially manufactured.

 I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem: Do not wake or rouse Love until it please!  (Song of Songs 8:4)

When it comes to God and the nation of Israel, we are consistently assured through Yishaya, that our love will eventually fully blossom, and that God will not give up. In truth, as a nation, neither have we. When we ‘pan out’ and look at our four-thousand year history we have only gained in maturity and our capacity to truly love.

This haftara is read with the Parasha of the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai to highlight the contrast between the prophets and the people. The prophets in each story did not fear intimacy. They were our role models.

So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. (Ex., 20:18)

 And while the people may not be as bold and vulnerable as the prophets and great people among us, we are always considered prophets in training. It is again Hillel the Elder who reminds us of our goal.

Hillel the Elder said: … Let Israel be, if they are not themselves prophets, they are children (students) of prophets. (Pesahim, 66a)

Our greatest role models have displayed faithfulness and love before they have modelled scholarship. If scholars do not fall more deeply in love with creation and people as a result of deeper knowledge, they are no more than an isolated brain rather than a living, breathing, loving human being. In an age where reason alone reigns supreme, the higher truths to which reason cannot bring us are doomed to remain undiscovered. Reason is insulted when its practitioners fail to recognise its limitations. It cannot explain consciousness, art and love. Torah is not primarily academic and it does not properly live in the cool academic halls of study. It lives in the heart and mind of a living human being who knows that his or her very being is one that is meant for connection and relationship. It is passed down from the heart of the teacher to the heart of the student. Knowledge helps maturity, and self-discovery, and it is thus, in the end, but a handmaiden for love and connection.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] Exodus, 19:8

[2] Although in Hebrew, רחם is mercy, in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, רחם is love.


Parasha Perspectives


V          Yitro 

32        Yitro and Moshe meet (18:1-27)

Yitro brings Moshe’s wife, Tzipporah, and their two sons to meet him (18:1-7);

Moshe recounts Exodus, Yitro praises God (18:8-12);

Yitro gives Moshe advice concerning judgment and

delegation (18:13-23);

Moshe puts the idea into practice  (18:24-27)

33a      Preparation for Revelation  (19:1-25)

33b      Revelation  (20:1)

33c      The Ten Commandments:  (20:2-6)

One: God who brought you out of Egypt (20:2-3)

Two: No idols (20:4-6)

33d      Three: Do not take God’s name in vain (20:7)

34a      Four: Remember Shabbat (20:8-11)

34b      Five: Honour parents (20:12)

34c      Six: Do not Murder  (20:13)

34d      Seven: Do not be an adulterer (20:13)

34e      Eight: Do not Steal  (20:13)

34f       Nine: Do not falsify testimony  (20:13)

34g      Ten: Do not crave your friend’s house (20:14)

34h      Ten: (ctd.) …or wife, servants, animals, all  (20:14)

35a      Reaction to Revelation  (20:15-18)

35b      No false gods. Altar construction (20:19-23)


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