Shoftim: Rising from the Dust

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

We’re continuing with our discussion of the seven haftarot of
consolation (see previous messages), and we’re up to number 4 with the
haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. All of these readings
are taken from the book of Isaiah; in these chapters the prophet
addresses a personified Jerusalem, telling the city to awake and
arise:

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck . . . (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 52:1-2)

Astute readers of the Hebrew and even the English may note that
phrases from these verses are quoted in “Lecha Dodi,” the hymn for
bringing in Shabbat. In context, the idea that Zion, or Jerusalem,
arises or shakes off the dust is clearly a metaphor for the Jewish
people regaining hope and dignity as their redemption approaches.

The phrase “arise, shake of the dust” [hitna’ari, m’afar kumi], is
interesting not only for the image of a people “arising” from a
degraded state but also because the word for “shake off” has a root
similar to that of “youth,” or “na’ar.” Thus Hirsch says that “when
Israel attains her goal she arises in youthful beauty,” which itself
is a metaphor not for physical beauty but the moral beauty of youthful
passion and idealism.

Along these lines, a homiletic interpretation of “hitna’ari” could be
“make yourself youthful again,” and perhaps the prophet himself
intended this doubled meaning, given the homonyms. If so, “shaking of
the dust” could be understood as shedding our cynicism and fear, and
renewing our ability to hope and thus work towards a better and
brighter world. Please note: I am not saying that young people are
never cynical, nor that older people lack hope; rather, I’m
interpreting these verses as poetic images, in which the process of
redemption is compared to regaining the passion and hope and idealism
commonly associated with youth.

In this reading, what we “shake off” is not dust on the outside, but
attitudes from the inside. An inner transformation is the beginning of
redemption; or, to put it another way, we can’t bring about what we
don’t dare to dream.

with best wishes for a good month of Elul and a peaceful rest of the summer,

RNJL

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