Ki Tetzei: The Impermanence of Sorrow

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

This week’s haftarah is both beautiful and disturbing: beautiful,
because the poetry is evocative and hopeful, and disturbing, because
the metaphors can be jarring and hard to fit with a contemporary
sensibility.

To wit, the dominant theme of this week’s haftarah, from Isaiah 54, is
a comparison of the people Israel, soon to be redeemed from exile, to
a woman who is “shamed” but soon to joyful. This “shame” (e.g., loss
of status) is either inability to bear children, widowhood or
abandonment; the image of Israel as a bereaved woman stays constant
throughout the text but the source of the sorrow shifts as the passage
progresses.

It’s a difficult image to digest, but what makes it harder is the
extension of the metaphor to include God’s role in the exile; that is,
if Israel is the abandoned wife, and redemption from exile is like the
reconciliation between spouses, then God, as it were, is like the
husband who rebukes or spurns his wife but then takes her back. This,
in turn, raises all kinds of questions about theodicy, or God’s
justice: how can we be grateful to God for bringing the people back
from exile if He [following the metaphor from the haftarah] was the
one who put us there in the first place?

Lest you think I’m reading too much into the poetry, consider these verses:

“For a little while I forsook you,
But with vast love I will bring you back.
In slight anger, for a moment,
I hid My face from you;
But with kindness everlasting
I will take you back in love” (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 54:7-8)

OK, what do we do with this? I am unwilling to articulate a theology
in which suffering is due to sin, either for persons or communities;
doing so not only posits that inflicting suffering is a choice God
makes, but relieves (in this case) the Babylonian empire from moral
responsibility for how it treated other, weaker nations. However, if I
can’t read the haftarah as an explanation of history, I can still
understand it as a poetic rendering of the experience of exile. That
is, rather than being prescriptive (don’t sin or God will banish you
from home), we can read it as descriptive: exile (or other suffering)
is so terrible it feels like even God has abandoned us.

This makes sense to me, and brings the images in the haftarah closer
to our experience: who among us has not experienced frustration,
anger, and even a sense of profound spiritual loneliness during
moments of grief or pain? Even the faithful have moments of doubt and
darkness- it is a natural part of the spiritual journey, rendered here
in images of bereavement and loss, soon to be transformed. The promise
of Isaiah is that these feelings don’t have to be permanent; there is
healing from sorrow, and thus hope endures where love is remembered.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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