This week the Ashkenazim and the Sefardim read different haftaras, and each of them is only tangentially related to the weekly Torah reading. Unfortunately, both convey pretty dire warnings. It’s an unusual choice, given all of the heroic themes in our parsha, for the haftaras to be focusing on rebuke and remonstration. One possible reason is that the deep winter is meant to be a time of introspection and of endeavoring to change our ways. The students of the Arizal mark with this parsha the beginning of the “Shovavim” cycle when the pious seek to purify themselves from improper urges.
Another improper urge, which according to the Talmud (Yoma 69b) has been greatly weakened since the times of the haftaras, is the worship of false deities. In the Ashkenazi haftara, the offering of sacrifices to idols is graphically compared to tables heaped with vomit and offal. (Yeshayahu 28:8). Radak points out that the depravity had become so widespread that all of the tables were thus defiled. Even the priests, even the leaders of the nation, had become as drunkards and completely lost their way. In Pirkei Avot (3:3) this verse is brought to teach that three people should never gather together without sharing words of Torah. There, again, idolatry is couched in euphemism – as eating the offerings of the dead.
There is a famous lesson taught regarding B’nei Yisrael in Mitzrayim that they had, over the course of their exile, descended to the 49th and penultimate level of corruption. Had they not been redeemed at that time they would have become irredeemable. It is less well known that this is actually a recent teaching, with no source in Talmud or midrash. The principal source is in Zohar Hadash on Yitro but the teaching there is not explicit. The version we know comes from the Beit HaLevi who attributes it to the Arizal. There is in these stories an implicit lesson for those of us living in exile in a corrupt society: We must take great care not to become corrupted ourselves.
But what of those who are living in Israel and also surrounded by great spiritual danger? These are the ones being addressed by Yeshayahu in the Ashkenazi haftara and, ominously, in the first prophecy of Yirmiyahu that the Sefardim read. For there are worse things than spiritual danger, and under the watchful eye of Hashem who scrutinizes Israel all the time (see especially Devarim 11:12), the spiritual transgressions have a nasty habit of begetting unpleasant physical effects. Yirmiyahu sees a boiling pot, open to the north, and Hashem tells him, “From the north will come misfortune upon all the inhabitants of the land” (Yirmiyahu 1:13-14). Because in Israel, when the trouble comes, historically it has always come from the north.
There are many wonderful commentaries to explain why this is so, cosmologically and metaphysically, but they are beyond the scope of this essay. Let it suffice to say that it behooves those who dwell in the land of Israel to see to the spiritual health of their communities, and if they are not able to achieve this, they should remain vigilant towards the north because bad things are likely to come from there.