Half a Torah

What is a haftarah, exactly? You should visit MJL’s haftarah page to become an authority on the matter in less than 3 minutes (promise!). My favorite trivia from that page: did you know that, in the Christian Bible, Jesus recited a haftarah?

Yep — it’s straight from the Book of Luke. I don’t know which haftarah it is, but seeing as though it’s from the Book of Isaiah, it could be any number of haftarahs — Noah, or — coming tomorrow — Lekh Lekha, or any number of others. (Isaiah was a prolific guy, and the rabbis recognized this when choosing which haftarah would correspond to which Torah portion.)

The Haftarah has always been a keystone part of the Shabbat morning prayers, a bonus bit of Torah after the regular reading. Bar and Bat Mitzvah children often layn the week’s haftarah (boys, at least, in a high, nasal voice that makes everyone wince, and then say how nicely they performed) as a demonstration of their newfound official Jewish prowess — that they actually have some sort of fluency with the Bible.

But how many of us actually know what’s going on? One of the hardest parts for me about reading the haftarah is actually caring what’s said. It’s like poetry, with rich metaphors and several layers of meaning — and they all go straight over my head.

This year, for those of you who receive our weekly Torah e-letter or check out the weekly Torah page might notice a new feature: a summary of the haftarah. It’s been an exercise in going deep — moving past the flowery language and trying to get to what Isaiah or the prophet of the week is actually saying. The haftarah’s always inspired by or connected to the Torah portion in some way, and that’s one level of connection that’s always different. It’s one way to move past, for instance, the first level of meaning that I always seem to get from the haftarah: Israel screwed up. Israel gets told off. God still loves us.

And that’s how most of them go — but, it seems, that’s also how life goes. And, beyond that, there’s a world of meaning inside the weekly haftarah. So go ahead…check it out along with us.

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