Unleashing the Haftarah

Rabbi Jan Uhrbach
| Tishah Be'av By :  Jan Uhrbach Director of the Block / Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts Posted On Jul 13, 2018 / 5778 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

The Latter Prophets, multiple authors, c. 10th–5th centuries BCE

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Tanakh is its self-critical character. Like the narratives of the Torah, the “former” prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) feature only flawed heroes. The “latter” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the twelve minor prophets) raise the stakes. Soaring and searing, they rail against the injustices and failures of society, holding a mirror to structural inequities that create poverty and oppression. The prophets lay bare the systemic corruptions within even biblically-created institutions—the priesthood, monarchy, and nation—revealing hypocrisies, false pieties, and breaches of the public trust.

The prophets also offer consolation, hope, courage and strength; indeed, underlying their words lies deep sadness and longing, grounded in love of God and humanity. They grieve the tragic distance between what is and what ought to be.

The Torah teaches us that no person is perfect, but neither are we exempt from self-examination and repentance. The prophets teach us that no society or institution continues indefinitely without systemic distortion; but neither are we free from collective self-examination and repentance. They vividly paint the consequences of ignoring societal rot, and implore us to return and restore our foundations.

Today, the prophet’s accusations are too often proven true even as the indictment is being read. The soul-searing, life-shattering experience of the prophetic word has been domesticated and tamed; haftarot are now sweetly chanted, relegated to a corner where their message can be safely ignored, challenging no one and threatening nothing. That’s why we created The Voice of the Prophet, a weekly podcast in which the prophetic word of the haftarah is declaimed in English by renowned actor Ronald Guttman, rendered understandable and insistent—even demanding.

I invite you to subscribe and listen. Last week’s episode marked the start of ten special haftarot: three of rebuke, read in the period of collective mourning between the 17th of Tammuz and Tishah Be’av, then seven of comfort for the period of collective reflection, repair, and repentance leading up to Rosh Hashanah. During these weeks—and beyond—listen to the podcast, and read the episode notes for food for thought about what the prophet’s message might mean to us today.