Idolatry and Hedonism
STUDENT SUMMARIES OF SICHOT OF THE ROSHEI YESHIVA
In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v'
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.
SICHA OF HARAV MOSHEH LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A
IDOLATRY AND HEDONISM
Translated by David Strauss
TWO IDEAS TWO HAFTAROT
The haftara of Parashat Shemot is not uniform; according to the Ashkanzi rite we read "In days to come Yaakov shall take root" (Yeshayahu 27:6-28:13, and 29:22-23), whereas according to Sefardi custom we read "The words of Yirmiyahu" (Yirmiyahu 1). This divide is extreme, there being nothing like it regarding any other haftara. In this shiur we shall deal with the Ashkenazi haftara, since the Sefardi haftara is read according to all opinions and in all communities as the first haftara in the series of the three haftarot of calamities (usually for Parashat Pinchas, and occasionally for Parashat Matot): http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/haftara/42pinchas.htm. Moreover, Yeshayahu's prophecy is difficult to understand and its connection to the parasha is not clear at first glance, which is not the case regarding the story of Yirmiyahu's consecration which is not particularly difficult and whose connection to the parasha is clear and evident.
TWO ISSUES IN THE PARASHA
In addition to the demand that this fact makes upon us to choose between the two
haftarot as the subject of this shiur, it also brings us to wonder
about the phenomenon and to try to understand the meaning of the split. It seems
to be rooted in the fact that the Torah deals with two main issues in
Parashat Shemot, both of which first appear on the Torah's stage in this
parasha. The first is
THE FLORID STYLE
Let us now try to understand the haftara. The prophecy of "In days to come Yaakov shall take root" is taken from chapters 27-28 of the book of Yeshaya, and is written in Yeshayahu's florid style. The chapters among which the haftara is found are characterized by difficult language marked by word plays, repetition of words and sounds, succinct syntax that omits transitional words and extensive use of metaphors. The very use of such florid language is not just a matter of personal style through which the prophet expresses the messages that he had received, but also reflects a certain understanding of the nature and role of prophecy. In this framework, which is meant to deal with the haftarot and not with the interpretation of the book of Yeshayahu in general, we shall refrain from entering into a discussion of this issue, and simply bring the phenomenon to the reader's attention.
The haftara clearly divides into two sections:
1) From the beginning (27:6) until the promise concerning the ingathering of the exiles at the end of the chapter (27:13).
2) The oracle of rebuke that comes in its wake (28:1-13, and 29:22-23).
The first section deals primarily with consolation, whereas the second section deals with rebuke. Even the sins alluded to in each of the sections are utterly different from each other, as we shall see below; thus we are dealing with two different prophecies. Indeed, the second half opens with the introductory word, hoi, "woe," testifying to the fact that we have here a new prophecy.
The haftara's point of departure is rooted in the fact that extended exile leads to difficult despair. The people go out into exile because a strong and mighty nation forces them out of their land, and plants them by force in another country. At the time, when the people are being forcibly exiled by a nation that has attacked their country, the difficulty and the tragedy stem from the suffering, killing and cruelty directed against the exiles in the course of the fighting and the expulsion. The sword, the hunger, and the captivity all strike a mortal and tragic blow against the individual and the community.
Afterwards, however, despair takes hold. As opposed to wartime, which by
its very definition constitutes an unstable situation and there exist the
possibility and the hope for dramatic change and upheaval, exile to a mighty and
faraway land do not allow for such expectations. A situation of permanent exile
in the wake of war leads to despair owing to the feeling that the current
circumstances will not change. The ruling nation is strong and tyrannical, the
people lack the strength to struggle against it, and to the degree that the
regime is stable, it appears that its days will be long and that it cannot be
changed. Even if changes take place that undermine the stability of the regime,
they are not always evident to the eye, but rather they become known only
retroactively and in hindsight, so that for the people living prior to the
upheaval, their lives in exile appear as unalterable. Anyone who still remembers
the feeling of the iron curtain that surrounded the
Yeshayahu's prophecy comes to confront these feelings that have accompanied the various exiles that have occurred over the generations. Besides the promise itself of an ingathering of the exiles, Yeshayahu emphasizes the concept of "that day." The prophet already made extensive use of this concept in the previous chapters that lead up to our haftara. The existence of "that day" and the prophetic promise of its existence come to inform the people about the possibility of an historic upheaval. Sometimes, history works in a gradual manner, and a person senses these changes and feels that the historical reality in which he is living is advancing. At other times, however, the change is not gradual, but rather sudden in the sense of "He brings low the arrogant and helps the poor" in the blink of an eye historical reality changes. Prior to that moment, a person feels no change whatsoever, and fails to identify historical processes, and then suddenly, everything changes. When a person is aware of the concept of "that day," then his hope for that day and his belief in the possibility of its arrival dispel his despair and raise his spirit at the most difficult moments.
In this context, it is worthwhile to examine the nature of redemption.
The model presented by Yeshayahu in these verses is redemption by way of a
heavenly power that interferes in history (it'aruta dele'eila). The
sounding of the great shofar on that day, that calls upon the outcasts
from all corners of the world to return to
Thus the process described by Yeshayahu parallels
THE ESSENCE OF THEIR SIN
As stated above, the essence of this passage is consolation, but it also
contains an allusion to the reason for
By this therefore shall the iniquity of Yaakov be atoned; and this is all the fruit to take away his sin; when he makes all the stones of the altar as chalkstones that are beaten in sunder, the asherim and sun images shall not remain standing. (Yeshayahu 27:9)
The erection of altars to idols and the establishment of asherim
are the sins that Yeshayahu sets before the people as the cause of their long
exile. Idolatry and only idolatry is the sin that has decided the matter.
The reason for this is clear. The other sins are forbidden and negative
acts, but they are performed in the framework of a relationship between
In summary, the first half of the haftara is a prophecy of
consolation that promises the people living in the depths of exile that the
exile will eventually come to its end, and therefore it is appropriate for
Parashat Shemot, when a person is supposed to feel the length of the exile
and the accompanying despair. The mechanism of the redemption and the
ingathering of the exiles will be performed at the hand of God, but is
The second half of the haftara is Yeshayahu's sharp attack on the high society of his time because of its hedonism, egocentricity and lack of social responsibility. The entire purpose of their lives is pleasure: wine, drunkenness and sweet and perfumed oils are what give spice to life, and it is around these things that everything turns. The crown the trademark of human achievement by which they are identified is pride and drunkenness, and the flower that they wear as their glory is a fading flower, that is, momentary and transient pleasure. Succinctly put, we are dealing with a hedonistic society which is solely interested in maximizing the pleasures of this world, with all the accompanying moral and social corruption. Drunkenness, pride, wine, fragrant oil, and strong drink characterize their existential world and these are what they aspire to.
The prophets, including Yeshayahu, fought bitterly against these phenomena, regarding them as spiritual and moral poison. If pleasure rules man rather than man ruling pleasure, if Coca Cola is the taste of life, then man has fallen from his elevated spiritual position and corrupted his ways. In our chapter, as in other places, Yeshayahu emphasizes the temporariness and insignificance of momentary pleasure ("And the fading flower of the glorious beauty shall be as the first ripe fig before the summer; which when one sees, while it is yet in his hand he swallows it up" [ibid. 28:4]), as well as its ugliness ("For all tables are full of vomit and filth, so that there is place clean" [ibid., v. 8]).
The prophet also places the blame for this corrupt state of affairs,
first and foremost, upon the leadership ("The priest and the prophet reel
through strong drink, they are confused by wine, they stagger through strong
drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment" [ibid. v. 7]). This is not
the first time that Yeshayahu lays the blame at the door of the leadership and
sees them as responsible for the people's situation, and it is possible to see
this accusation all through the prophets' reprimands of
In addition to their responsibility for the situation of the reveling drunkards, they allowed for the creation of a spiritual hole, for the leadership forsook its role and failed to provide the necessary spiritual guidance. There is nobody to teach, guide, and direct the people, and even the schoolchildren fail to receive the education that they rightly deserve:
Who shall teach knowledge, and who shall make to understand doctrine, to those that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts? (ibid. v. 9)
HEDONISM AS THE BASIS FOR ISRAEL'S DISTANCING THEMSELVES FROM GOD
What is the function of
this prophecy as a haftara? The answer to this question is that the
prophecy comes to point to the basic decay that brings the people to punishment
and exile. We are not talking about an isolated act of sin, but rather the
general spiritual foundation. The prophet identifies hedonism as the basis for
The two, however, are very different in nature. The sin of idol worship is not necessarily committed out of the pursuit of pleasure and the setting of man in the center. On the contrary, it often appears in periods of spiritual tension and religious seeking. The sinner does not loath spiritual life and the desire to conjoin with a being that is beyond his world, but rather he errs in his choice. His sin is a sin of treachery.
The hedonist, in contrast, does not leave God and opt for a connection with a different deity, but rather he develops spiritual dullness that interferes with his ability to break out of his material-corporeal world and blinds him into seeing mere pleasure as the essence of life. The absence of a connection with God stems not from his with an alien factor, but rather from his inability to breach the framework of his narrow world and the lack of desire for spiritual challenge. His sin is a sin of materiality.
Both of these sins lead to exile, and Yeshayahu fights against both of them. There is no doubt, however, that in our haftara, the war waged against hedonism is more sharp and bitter. Unlike the first half, which is formulated as a consolation which conditions redemption on the abandonment of idolatry, the second half engages in frontal battle and in the manner of harsh reprimand with hedonism. So too the redemption alluded to therein ("In that day, shall the Lord of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty, to the residue of His people" [ibid., v. 5]) is limited in its scope, for it is promised only to the residue of His people.
THE CONNECTION TO OUR PARASHA
And now to our
parasha. Nowhere does the Torah explain why
Reading the haftara of Yeshaya which focuses the sin of the
people during his period and emphasizes the spiritual danger of hedonistic pride
for future generations for a parasha that deals with exile comes to
warn us of these dangers in the reality of our lives in the here and now, and
not as an interpretation of what happened in Egypt. It is possible, however,
that there is here a hint that in
 The chapter in Yirmiyahu also has two focuses: 1) the consecration of Yirmiyahu and 2) the approaching destruction. Therefore, according to Sefardi rite, it is read twice over the course of the year; on Parashat Shemot, because of Yirmiyahu's prophecy and parallel to Moshe's mission as prophet, and as the first haftara in the series of three haftarot of calamity, because of its connection to the destruction of the Temple and the Bein ha-Metzarim period during which it is read.
 According to the Da'at Mikra commentary, the verse, "And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be blown" (27:12), is not only the end of the first half of the haftara, but the end of the book of Yeshayahu! Whether or not we agree and this is not the place to discuss the issue we can certainly learn from this that, at the very least, we are talking about the midpoint of the haftara.
 For illustrative purposes, allow me to note that at the end of the nineteen eighties, a year or two before the fall of the Berlin War, I read an article in Newsweek, written by a senior commentator, which spoke of underground processes that would eventually lead to a reunification of Germany. He quickly added, however, that this was a long-term process that could not be expected to work itself out before the year 2050! At the time, the article appeared to be serious and to have a long-term perspective. The magazine published it as an opinion column, rather than a news item, for at the time there were no overt signs of an impending change. Today, of course, even the fish wrapped in yesterday's newspaper would laugh when reading that article and smile at man's blindness to what is happening around him.
It goes without saying that at the beginning of the eighties, five years before the reunification of the two Germany's, even such an assessment would have been unimaginable.
 A future historian trying to understand our society by listening to the radio advertisements of the period will quickly reach similarly harsh conclusions about what is regarded as the taste of life, what is considered important for happiness, and toward what goals money and energy should be invested.
 I included the verse here on the assumption that the latter half of the verse refers to the party who is supposed to be taught. Even if we accept the alternative exegetical possibility that the end of the verse describes the teacher, it still points to the same abandonement of responsibility toward the people on the part of the leadership.
 Let us not forget that Israel arrived in Egypt as desired guests and that at first they enjoyed the good life, such that the seduction and danger of slipping into the abyss of hedonism certainly existed.
 On this point, see: