The haftorah, the new subject of this column, is a bit of scripture read as an addendum to the weekly Torah portion. While there are several theories as to its historical origin, the idea itself is audacious: rather than have a single text to scrutinize, let there be two, thematically linked and complementary. Let there be twice as much commentary. Let uncertainty grow twofold. Because what hope, really, does the mind, rarely capable of grasping the intricacies of relationships between human beings, have of understanding the subtle, minute dramas of relationships between texts?
Having spent a year reading the Torah portions themselves, often in light of current events and other immediate concerns, this column will now attempt a different, more desperate task, considering the postscript in light of its point of reference. The Torah portion, the parasha is—to borrow a phrase from Phillip Larkin—the elsewhere that underwrites the haftorah’s existence.
And could there be a greater elsewhere than Genesis 1:1? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Definitive. Defining. What else remains to be said?
This week’s haftorah, taken from the book of Isaiah, provides a fascinating meditation on that seminal act of creation. The same Lord who, in the beginning, spoke to command light into existence, now concerns Himself with a more concrete theme, His people.
“I am the Lord,” He says. “I called you with righteousness and I will strengthen your hand; and I formed you, and I made you for a people’s covenant, for a light to nations.”
It’s an odd construction, that. Just what does it mean to call someone with righteousness? And, chronologically speaking, wouldn’t the Lord first form a people, and only then call them, with righteousness or otherwise? Doesn’t the act of creation, the subject of the first chapter of Genesis, precede all else?
An answer, intriguing and difficult, appears later on in the chapter. In stark contrast to John—who famously declared that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—Isaiah puts a more mute spin on things. “I was silent from time immemorial,” he quotes the Lord as saying. “I am still, I restrain Myself.”
Isaiah’s God is wordless. The prophet, unlike the apostle, understands that the word of God, mighty as it is, is secondary to the awesome, shattering force that human beings possess, that singular strength that, in some sense, puts them even above the Lord himself, the power to simply declare that they do not believe in God. The Word, in other words, means nothing if nobody’s listening. Isaiah himself riffs on this theme: “There is much to see but you do not observe,” he reports the Lord’s words, “to open the ears but no one listens.”
In this impaired universe—one inhabited by people, perfectly flawed as we are—the act of creation, the forming, can and must come after the call to righteousness. Our God—the still, the silent, the restrained—did not make us so that we can obey. He called us into righteousness first, setting before us His moral and spiritual ideals, and only then formed us. It’s a sequence that necessitates choice: first we are shown the path, and then given our bodies, our spirits, and our minds, all the faculties we’ll need to choose whether to walk with God or to refuse Him.
What makes the Jews a light unto the nations, then, is not, as some renowned scholars have suggested throughout the centuries, some inherent quality, some divine spark injected, from Adam onwards, into each Jewish soul. Rather, it is the ability, if not the obligation, to make up our own minds. We have no savior; we must save ourselves. More than the chosen people, the Jews are the choosing people, presented by God not with a definitive account that leaves no room for interpretation but with a calling to do the right thing and the capacity to reject that very calling.
If the prophet were around today, in the age of constant cable news, he might have put it this way: God reports, we decide. Thank the Lord, then, for the haftorahs: As great as the Torah is, when we’re faced with such crucial decisions, every additional bit of information help.