Maimonides set the division of the Torah into the weekly portions most of the world Jewish population agrees on. He based his divisions on the Aleppo Codex, a bound manuscript of the Torah written some 200 years earlier in the 10th century. The Aleppo Codex was kept by its Jewish community in the basement chapel the Aleppo Central Synagogue, a space believed to have been Elijah’s cave. It was revered and kept safe until the riots in Syria against the Jews of 1947 at which time at least half the codex pages were lost to fire. In 1958 the Aleppo Codex was smuggled by Syrian Jews to Israel, where it was confirmed by scholars as the the book Maimonides refers to in his Mishne Torah.
Connected to each portion which is publicly chanted on the Sabbath, is a selection for the book of prophets, thematically linked to the Torah portion, and called the haftarah. We don’t know who set the list of haftarah readings at the thematic connections are somethimes diffcult to see, sometimes related more to the the Jewish calendar and approaching holidays, and sometimes to the form of the Torah portion more than the meaning of its prose. For example the Song of the Sea is connected to the haftarah containing the Song of Deborah. There is a traditional theory connected to the story of Chanukah that under the Selucid King Antiochus IV Jews were not permitted to read/study Torah and so they read Haftarah, the prophets, with thematic links back to the Torah portion in its place. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that teh haftarah reading was added to combat sects that argued only the first five books were part fo the cannon of Torah. These and other explanations have their difficulties. The Talmud mentions the reading of some form of Haftarah as far back as 70CE.
This week in synagogues around the world, Jews will recite the ten commandments, given to Israel at Sinai. Interesting to me is the haftarah thematically coupled to this great moment of revelation. The haftarah for both Ashkenazim and Sefardim begins with Isaiah, chapter 6. It is the description of the prophet Isaiah’s encounter with God. I understand the connection: The people of Israel experience God at Sinai and the prophet Isaiah experiences God in a vision. It is two stories of revelation, national and personal.
Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.” And God said, “Go, say to that people:
‘Hear, indeed, but do not understand;
See, indeed, but do not grasp.’
Dull that people’s mind,
Stop its ears,
And seal its eyes —
Lest, seeing with its eyes
And hearing with its ears,
It also grasp with its mind,
And repent and save itself.”
“Hear but do not understand.” Isaiah’s message is difficult, literarily and theologically. One interpretation suggests that the prophet was instructed to speak in such a way that the people would reject the message, thus ensuring divine punishment. (Etz Hayyim) Another interpretation translates “Hear, though you do not understand.” Although the people may hear they have become too indifferent to God’s word to respond to the prophet’s warning. (Rashi, Radak) The prophet has a clear vision but the people are unable to see or hear.
In the giving of the commandments at Sinai, the people are afraid to approach God and so ask Moses to go for them. (Ex 19:23) While Moses is away, they are so troubled that they build the Golden Calf (Ex 32). Sinai offers a clear vision, a perfect moment of revelation, but the people’s minds are dulled, their ears stopped. This is our challenge, to learn to see, to hear, to understand.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, made it his life’s work to help the people to see. He felt that the straightforward tradition of study of Torah and Talmud were not enough to really reach inside the people’s souls and help them understand. To our Judaism, Hassidut brought music, dance and stories, all designed with the intent of opening the mysteries of the universe to Amcha.
In the story of The Werewolf, we meet the Baal Shem Tov before he had begun to study Torah, before he was a great Rabbi, as a young boy, wild in the woods. His parents had passed away, the father’s last words to his son: “the Adversary will test you but he has no power over you.” The community paid to send the boy to school but the boy could not abide staying indoors. He kept running away to the forest. Finally, the adults accepted his choice and let him live out in the wild open. The boy got a job with the head of school, accompanying the children from town to school and back each day. The people in the dull town saw a remarkable transformation take place. Day by day the boy led a singing procession of children through the streets, the meadows and forests. The children no longer hung their heads in heaviness. They shouted merrily, carrying plants and branches in their hands. Their hearts burned with devotion.
The Adversary was jealous. He came down from heaven and found a shy man, a charcoal burner who lived at the outskirts forest. This man was at times compelled to turn into a werewolf, but he never harmed a human, hunting instead on animals. The Adversary reached into the man’s chest and removed his heart, replacing it with a darkness of his own.
When the boy next led the children through the forest to school the werewolf attacked. The children were terrified, as were their parents who kept them locked in their own homes. The boy went to each parent and convinced them to allow him to lead the children once again to school, them he gathered the children and calmed them. As they walked, the werewolf burst upon them. The boy stood firm. He remembered his father’s words that he had nothing to fear. He reached into the werewolf’s chest and pulled out Satan’s dark heart. With that the man died, returning to his true self, and finally at peace.
The boy continued to lead the children to school and back, from from that day on, they forgot their singing and began to resemble their parents.. passing over the land with their heads bowed between their shoulders.*
I love this story. It has many layers of teachings. The connection for me with Isaiah, is in the children, who hand their heads as their parents and grandparents do. They do not see, they do not rejoice… they trudge along on their path, eyes cast downward. What has bent them under? Fear. What keeps us for hearing, from seeing, for understand the glory and beauty that God presents before us… our fear.
As long as fear is our guide, we will be compelled to hear, but not understand.
* My retelling of this story is based on the translation by Martin Buber