The “Worm of Jacob”

The Haftorah that is read from the book of Prophets, after the reading of the Torah portion, is intrinsically linked to that same Torah portion. Throughout our history, the ruling authorities which held sway over the conquered Jewish people, saw the reading of the weekly Torah portion as a spiritual threat.

The Jews will endeavor to do even the impossible because their beloved G-d asked them to do so.

Though they claimed to have no faith in the words of this Torah, they could not ignore its power. As a result the reading of the Torah portion in certain times was banned. Anybody that would engage in the reading or study of Torah was condemned to death.

That is how powerful this supposedly irrelevant book was, even in the minds of pagans.

As a result of these restrictions, the rabbis connected certain selections from the not yet banned books of the prophets, to each of the weekly Torah portions. This connection was based either on the text or in the thematic message found in the text .Yet even if when the linkage seems to be clearly based on some textual connection, we have been assured by our sages that that link reveals even deeper multilayered message and insigh

The Haftorah reading for Parshat Lech Lecha is found in the book of Isaiah (Chapter 40:27- 41:16.) In that text, Isaiah mentions Avraham being called out of his homeland and does allude to his battle with the four kings ” Who aroused from the East, [the one] whom righteousness accompanied? He placed nations before him and over kings He gave him dominion; He made his sword like dust, his bow like wind-blown stubble. He pursued them and passed on safely, on a path upon which he had not come with his feet. ( Isaiah 41 :2-3).

Yet the underlying theme of this Haftorah is about Hashem’s encouragement to his people in the midst of exile. Where then is the deeper connection to our Torah portion? In fact we find that the parsha ( Torah portion ) of Lech Lecha is actually a blend of two almost conflicting themes, that of exile and that of redemption.

Avraham is told to leave his home which is a sort of exile but then he is welcomed by G-d into his new eternal home

“And HaShem said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”( Genesis 12:1) And then again “ And the Lord appeared to Abram, and He said, “To your seed I will give this land,” and there he built an altar to the Lord, Who had appeared to him.” ( ibid).

Soon thereafter we read of another exile:

“And there was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land. ( ibid 10) An exile he was soon to be redeemed from”. And Abram came up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his, and Lot with him, to the south.( Ibid 13: 1)

The Ramban in his commentary on the Torah (Ramban on Genesis 12:6), has repeatedly articulated the dictum “maaseh avot siman l’vanim”.that has been translated as “the deeds of our ancestors are a model for future generations”. More concretely this is to mean the deeds that the Torah has deemed important to relate to us have become the contours of the future of our people Avraham’s descent into Egypt is but the prototype of future exiles. The descent into Egypt will be followed by the descent of Avraham’s ancestors into Egypt.

Exile demoralizes. Exile makes a people feel unworthy and it saps the strength and vision away from them . Isaiah’s words in our Haftorah are meant to be words of encouragement during the exiles of our people.

Avraham, the man of undying faith, was conditioned to “walk into the unknown”, but his ancestors may not be. A people can grow very weary in exile. Exile is a vicious and disconcerting experience. Exile demoralizes, makes a people feel unworthy and saps the strength and vision away from them. Isaiah’s words in our Haftorah are meant to be words of encouragement during the exiles of our people. In fact Isaiah uses a very strange word to describe the state of the people in Exile.

Fear not, O worm of Jacob — tolaat Yaacov” (Isaiah 41:14) This phrase hearkens to another verse in Psalms when king David says, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6). On this verse in psalms, our sages describe the worm as being a creation deemed unworthy and scorned by all the others that see it. That will be the experience of Exile.

As we read in Deuteronomy:

“HaShem will bring thee, and thy king whom thou shall set over thee, unto a nation that thou hast not known, thou nor thy fathers; and there shall thou serve other G-ds, wood and stone. And thou shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all the peoples whither HaShem shall lead thee away “ ( Deuteronomy 28:36-37)

Is Isaiah using the term Tolaat (worm) simply as a bleak description of the state of the people or is something else being implied by this description?

Rashi on this verse suggests that the Jewish people may have been as weak as worms: but “She’ain lakh gevurah ela ba’peh. [Their strength was in their mouths].” The mouth is good for at least two things, of which one of the most powerful is prayer.

The worm then becomes a spiritual metaphor of spiritual and prayerful strength. The worm perseveres. It crawls forward very slowly and yet in spite of all the hazards in its way, it finally arrives at its destination. That is the message of this haftarah:

” Who gives the tired strength, and to him who has no strength, He increases strength. Now youths shall become tired and weary, and young men shall stumble. But those who put their hope in the Lord shall renew [their] vigor, they shall raise wings as eagles; they shall run and not weary, they shall walk and not tire.( Isaiah 40 :29-31)

In a time where much of the world turns again against our people, that promise and the power of prayer become our sole anchors. Yet there is more

I was recently interviewed for a film to be aired on PBS.The interviewer asked me why is it that when he walks through the streets of the Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem he senses a deep calm and serenity. “Do they not realize that millions of missiles are aimed at the heart of this land , and that hundreds of millions of people look at this people and this land with great disdain”, he asked.

I answered that there is no where as comforting as being in the eye of the hurricane and no place as secure as being within Hashem’s will .And HaShem wills us to be here. Furthermore as we have said “maaseh avot siman l’vanim” “the deeds of our ancestors are a model for future generations.

G-d tells Abraham to go out and count the stars though He also tells him that that is an impossible task. ( Genesis 15:4-6) Then G-d says “‘Thus shall be your children “. The simple understanding of the verse explains that Abraham is told that his children would be as numerous as the stars. The deeper understanding implies much more.

G-d tells Abraham to do an impossible task and then we see there is a pause. At the end of that pause G-d begins to speak again and says “‘Thus shall be your children “. What did Abraham do during that pause? Clearly he went out and started counting the stars just as G-d had asked him to do. At that point G-d tells him that it is that characteristic that will exemplify his children. They will endeavor to do even the impossible because that is what their beloved G-d asked them to do so.

That is their strength and the source of their calmness of spirit. The time has come when HaShem ” will give the tired strength, and to him who has no strength, He will increase strength. ….those who put their hope in HaShem shall renew [their] vigor, they shall raise wings as eagles; they shall run and not weary, they shall walk and not tire.”Isaiah 40 :29-31)

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