A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.10.21

December 10, 2021

I’d like to use this space today to announce and advertise a Zoom class that I’ll be teaching starting in January. Beginning on Wednesday, January 5th, I’ll be running another class in haftarah chanting. For those who are not altogether familiar with the term, the haftarah is the weekly reading from one of the books of the Prophets. The prophetic reading usually corresponds, in some way, to the Torah reading – it may pick up on some of the themes or language in the Torah portion and act as a compliment to it. The word haftarah is unconnected to the word Torah – it means “conclusion” or “parting” because it represents the end of the scriptural readings of the service. It is related to the word maftir (f-t-r), a term that refers to the final reading of the day’s Torah portion.

The origin of the practice of reading a haftarah is lost to history. There are a number of theories, the most common of which is connected to the holiday of Chanukah, which just passed. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the villainous king of the Chanukah story, outlawed the study and reading of Torah during his reign. Consequently, the sages of the time found passages in the prophets (i.e. not the Torah) which alluded to the prescribed Torah reading, so that the public could at least have a taste of what they were missing. Thus did the practice of the weekly reading stay alive, and thus did thoughts, if not words of Torah, continue to ring in the ears of the people. With the victory of the Maccabees, the ban was lifted, of course, but the practice of chanting the prophetic reading remained (once we institute a practice, it’s there forever!).

The historical veracity of that explanation is very much in doubt – it was first put forth some 16 centuries later by the great Spanish commentator Abudarham (known for his commentary on the liturgy) – hardly a reliable provenance. Regardless, reading haftarah is a wonderful practice that lets us hear words from the books of the Prophets on a weekly basis.

Chanting haftarah is not difficult. If your Hebrew decoding (reading) skills are ok, it’s simply a matter of learning a musical system and then applying that system to the words. It’s actually quite fun! ANYONE can do it – no musical skill is required – and it’s a highly empowering synagogue skill. Perhaps you did not “have” a bar or bat mitzvah when you were a kid. Perhaps you were told to memorize your portion and you didn’t get to learn the wonderful system of “trop notes.” Maybe you learned as a youngster and forgot! Now’s your chance! If you need to brush up on your reading skills (or even start from scratch), let me know ahead of time (you’re not alone) and we’ll make arrangements.

The class will run for 6-8 weeks. After that, you’ll work privately with me on perfecting a small section of a haftarah (no worries – just a few verses!), which we (the class graduates) will read communally on a Shabbat morning in the Spring. More advertising: it is fun and rewarding! Also, EMJC needs you!

The Abudarham explanation noted above tells a story of Jewish tenacity, creativity, and continuity in the face of adversity. The Joseph story (the exciting climax of which we will read this Shabbat) shares that same theme – the sages stress that it was Joseph’s knowledge of Torah and commandments that sustained him all those years in Egypt. In this week’s installment of the story, after Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he sends them all back to Canaan to bring their father Jacob down and to effectuate their resettlement in Egypt/Goshen. When they report to Jacob that Joseph is alive, the Torah says “His heart went numb, for he did not believe them” (Genesis 44:26). Why should his heart go numb? Why should he doubt them? Because he could not imagine that his son, who was 17 at the time of his disappearance, could possibly have maintained his Jewish identity among the pagan Egyptians. It was not that Jacob didn’t believe them, but rather that he did not believe that “the same” Joseph, his good Jewish son, could still “exist.” A charming midrash picks up on the very next verse, which reads, But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. In that moment, the midrash says, Jacob recalls that the last section of Torah that he and Joseph had studied before Joseph’s disappearance was the egla arufa, “the heifer whose neck was broken” (Deuteronomy 21:1-8). The Hebrew word for “heifer,” egla, is similar to the Hebrew word for “wagon,” agalah, and so Jacob took this as a private sign, from Joseph to him, that he remembered “where they had left off,” and that his Torah was still very much alive. And so, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. (Note that the Midrash is unconcerned with chronology – the fact that there was no “Torah” at the time of Jacob is irrelevant to the sages of the midrash – as far as they are concerned, Torah is eternal – it has always existed).

If this were an ad, the tag-line would be: you too can be part of this long chain of Jewish continuity, of the passing on of our traditions and our ways! Come join our haftarah class!

Details will follow, but the basics are: Wednesdays (starting on Jan. 5th) at 7:30 pm, Zoom.

In the meantime, let me wish you all a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam Levine