Messianic Images On The Road To Rosh HaShanah

Messianic Images On The Road To Rosh HaShanah

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:36 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Havdalah: 8:36 p.m.

The weekly haftarah is usually related to the Torah portion that it follows, but this week’s haftarah, from Isaiah 54, seems different. It is the fifth of seven readings that began after Tisha b’Av, as part of a rising crescendo of faith in a better time to come — not a bad lesson these days of troubled headlines.

Instead of this week’s haftarah, Jews once upon a time read the ninth chapter of Zechariah, an even more explicit promise of hope, because of its express guarantee of a messiah who will save us from the terrors of history. That haftarah contains the familiar picture of the messiah on a white donkey [Zechariah 9:9], an image borrowed by the Gospel of Matthew, who has Jesus ride a donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps, say scholars, it was precisely the Christian use of this verse that prompted the Rabbis to replace the Zechariah reading with the Isaiah passage that we now have.

Well, perhaps. But is that really the way things work? When Christians borrow a Jewish image or idiom, do we Jews abandon it?

I doubt it: For one thing, the image of a messiah riding a donkey shows up in medieval Haggadah illustrations, so we never gave up the image entirely. For another, there is the motsi — the blessing we say over bread. The Talmud interprets “bread” here messianically — the bread God will provide in time to come. Similarly, in the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, where we praise God for feeding the whole world, it is not that God already does so, but that someday, we trust, God will. Christian theology co-opted the messianic symbolism of bread too: among other things, the Lord’s Prayer requests, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Echoing the Rabbis, Church Fathers call that “the bread of the Kingdom-come,” not the ordinary stuff we hold in our hands or put in our stomachs. Bread also became the central substance of the Eucharist, the ritual that most defines classical Christian faith. Jews didn’t stop saying the motsi or the Birkat Hamazon on that account.

But wait. Didn’t we drop their messianic meaning?

You might think so, because of how few Jews know what that meaning is. Our ignorance, however, is no reaction to Christianity. It is part of the mistaken notion that no self-respecting modern Jew can entertain matters of religious belief—the very promises that make religion worthwhile in the first place. Sometimes Jews who recite mealtime prayers do so purely out of habit; others, seeing no point in them, let them lapse — why not, if they have no transcendent significance.

We hardly need to worry about fighting Christian interpretation, which, in any event, is usually just our own, transferred to a Christian context. Our problem today is the ease with which we have settled for practice without meaning — the way we have given up intimations of transcendence.

The seven Haftarah readings culminate in the promise of Rosh HaShanah: the hope that God’s purposes will someday be realized worldwide – that’s what the shofar is supposed to herald. In this week’s reading, God assures us, “My love will never leave you. My covenant of peace shall never be removed” [Isaiah 54:10].

Should we just mumble this through, the way we do the motsi? Or are we willing to consider the possibility that we are born into a world where love can dominate, where we are in Covenant with the Divine, and where evil and want just might slowly but inexorably be expunged from human experience?

I have trouble believing these things every hour of every day. Who doesn’t? But the Haftarah, the motsi and the Birkat Hamazon are prayers. Prayer is precisely the medium that punctuates the humdrum and the harrowing with the poetry of possibility.

Ritual is the regularized affirmation of order that matters. Inherited rituals are reminders of the shapes other people saw. Our ancestors saw patterns we should not want to do without. Even the lowly motsi should be a metaphoric means of dreaming in league with God.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College in New York, offering courses also on spirituality, Judaism in America and synagogue transformation and change. He lectures widely around the country and has most recently written “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012). 

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