By: Ilana Goldstein Saks.
Shabbat Mevarchim Chodesh Shevat
Haftarah Parshat Shemot
Ashkenazi: Yeshayahu 27:6-13, 29-22-23 (see shiur)
Sepharadi: Yirmiyahu 1:1 – 2:3 (see for further study)
Spring is the season of redemption. In the month of Nissan, the birth of Am Yisrael is mirrored by the rebirth of nature. The beginnings of redemption, however, take root during a colder, darker time.
In Parshat Shemot, God tells Moshe that Am Yisrael will be redeemed and Egypt will be punished (Shemot 3:19-20). At the close of the parshah, however, this seems unlikely. Am Yisrael is shackled in the depths of slavery, while Egypt seems more powerful than ever (Shemot 5:1-23). When the almond tree blossoms during the gloom of winter, it always seems a bit premature.
Yeshayahu, too, lived in a time when redemption was remote, and yet he spoke of the day when Am Yisrael’s enemies would fall. Interestingly, the enemies’ destruction is described in terms of the undoing of nature. Their downfall is symbolized by the desolation of their trees:
“…the fortified city shall be solitary, and the habitation forsaken, and left like a wilderness: there shall the calf feed, and there shall he lie down, and consume its branches. When its boughs are withered, they shall be broken off: the women shall come, and set them on fire…” (Yeshayahu, 27:10-11).
Appropriately, the atonement of Am Yisrael – that which will allow them to escape the fate of their enemies – also requires the destruction of trees:
“By this therefore shall the iniquity of Yaakov be atoned… when he makes all the stones of the altar as shattered blocks of chalk, the asherim … shall not remain standing” (27:9).
If Am Yisrael is to be forgiven, they must destroy the idols they have been worshipping, including the “asherim.” These idolatrous trees must fall together with those of the enemy. What is left is a desolate landscape. However, once these trees are destroyed Am Yisrael can grow out of the ruins:
“In days to come Yaakov shall take root, Yisrael shall blossom and bud, and the face of the world shall be filled with fruit” (27:6).
What seems like wintry desolation is actually the prelude to spring.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Shevat Tov!
For Further Study
1. The Sepharadi haftarah also contains a reference to a tree particularly associated with the month of Shevat. See Yirmiyahu 1:11-12. What is the play on words in this vision? What is the meaning of the word that is being played on (see e.g. Mishlei 8:34; see also Tehillim 121:4)? How do you think the tree mentioned got its name? What is God’s message to Yirmiyahu? Compare Yirmiyahu 31:28 to Yirmiyahu 1:10-12. Compare this message to the above shiur.
2. Despite the seasonal appropriateness of the tree themes in this week’s haftarot it is likely that the themes of redemption, atonement from idolatry and punishment of enemies are the reason for their selection. For more on these themes in both haftorot see: Yirmiyahu 2:3, Yeshayahu 27:12-13, Yeshayahu, 28:3-4, Yirmiyahu 1:16-17 (compare to Yechezkel 20:5-11, Shemot 12:1-13).
3. For another connection between parshat Shemot and this week’s Ashkenazi haftarah compare Shemot 1:1-7 to Yeshayahu 27:6 (some similarities may be lost in translation).