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D’Var Torah Yitro

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn
One of my favorite examples of mindfulness is a moment when one is compelled to speak and does not. This verbal control is strengthening and therapeutic.
Here is this week’s haftarah commentary:

Parshat Yitro
February 11, 2023 | 20 Shvat 5783
Torah: Exodus 18:1-20:23 Triennial: Exodus 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak Nothing
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb
Haftarah

In an epic moment, the Israelite people stand together in front of Mount Sinai to hear God. The experience is so great that senses come together, and they have a moment of synesthesia. Along with the trepidation they felt, there is a moment of great awe and unity.

In our haftarah the navi (prophet) Isaiah sees and hears God and the seraphim of the heavenly host. Unlike the positive, awe-inspiring and uniting experience of the Israelites in the parashah, Isaiah is alone, experiencing dread and distancing.  He fears dire consequences, “Woe is me, for I am cut-off! Because I am a man of impure lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of impure lips; for my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). Rashi attributes the navi’s fright to fear of death because he saw God. Ibn Ezra sees the distress as stemming from his impure status, forcing him away from those who are holy (perhaps referring to angels or holy people.)

While impurity is a known state in Tanakh, that state affects the entire person, not the lips alone. Therefore, R. Joseph Kara stresses that this is not actual impurity, and the explanation should be sought in the realm of the spiritual. Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra identify the problem in the environment in which the navi lives: a nation immersed in sinful behavior and speech. In such an environment one utters words that should not be said, words of spiritual impurity.

It is only after some external help from one of the seraphim that purifies his lips with a burning coal that the navi can become an active participant in the conversation of the holy beings.  Only then can he respond in the positive to the voice of the LORD asking, “Who shall I send?”

The message that he is sent with to the people is horrifically simple.  He is sent to fail.  “Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart – and return and be healed!” (6:10).

In a place where even the navi’s lips are impure there is doubt that the ears can listen, or the eyes see.  A dull heart will guarantee a lack of change.

Isaiah has taken the first step against his mission to fail; he has his own lips purified. He will speak warnings time after time to the people of Jerusalem. Perhaps every prophet, leader, educator, every person who tries to bring about change should acknowledge that they have moments of impure lips, of words that should not have been uttered, of speeches that dulled the heart, reduced the hearing, and blinded the audience. Moments that did not improve the world, even if they gained ratings for the speakers.  We do not have seraphs that purify us, we must take responsibility for our lips.

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