April 22, 2023 | 1 Iyyar 5783
Torah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33 Triennial: Leviticu
Maftir: Numbers 28:9-15 Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Those Who Choose What God Doesn’t Want
The Rosh Hodesh haftarah, taken from the last chapter of the book of Isaiah, brings back to the fore the criticism of the people’s worship. In the first two chapters of the book, Isaiah rails against those who practice religious practices vainly. In this haftarah Isaiah (according to scholars a different Isaiah, who may have prophesied as late as the Second Temple era) points to two types of people: Those to whom the word of God is a driving force, and those to whom the appearance of the worship is the significant factor.
The haftarah opens from the grand vantage point of God “the heavens are My throne, and the earth is My footstool” (Isa. 66:1). From that observation point God sees people for what they truly are. Some are “the poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.” (V.2) It would take a humble spirit to make space for God in one’s self-perception, to put God’s word first.
The other group, those who fail this Godly test, appear pious: They sacrifice, bring offerings, and burn incense. But their methods of getting close to God (standard practice in the cultic culture of the ancient world), are lacking:
He who kills a bull – he slays a man.
He who sacrifices a lamb, – he breaks a dog’s neck;
He who offers a grain offering, – swine’s blood;
He who burns incense, – he blesses an idol. (v.3)
Isaiah’s words are somewhat unclear, leaving an open field for the commentators and translators. Many add the words “as if” turning the text into metaphors. The person who kills a bull is considered by God as if he slayed a man. This reading, found in many medieval commentators (see Rashi and Radak) criticizes the cultic practices of the people for lack of proper intent, turning them into acts equivalent to murder and idol worship.
Shadal (Luzzato) reads the text literally: He who kills a bull (presumably for sacrificing to God) may also slay a man. A person’s religious practice is not an indication of his commitment to God’s word. Shadal understands the words of Isaiah as criticizing the people for believing that in religious practice one can manipulate God: acting abhorrently elsewhere, and in the Temple placating God by bringing a sacrifice. Isaiah is trying to tell the people that serving God while acting hideously is seen by God for what it is: Hypocrisy and haughtiness. This allegation was introduced by Isaiah in chapters 1-2. Now the book comes full circle.
The editor of the book chooses to close with a warning: God seeks those who are committed to God’s word, not those who give the appearance of worship but whose practice is void of true content, or worse – covers up horrific acts. Outward appearance of sacrifices might fool society, and perhaps even allow the person to lie to himself, but God knows who is truly concerned about God’s word.