by Lois Rosenthal
The weekly Haftorah readings follow the story of the Israelites after they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. The writing styles vary greatly, from poetry to historical prose.
Of particular note are writings from the time of the divided kingdom. Conquests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were seen by the prophets as divine punishment for failure to follow the Torah. The writings from this time are full of harsh rebukes and biting metaphors. This is the type of reading found in the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av.
Once Tisha B’Av is over and the High Holidays are approaching, the tone changes. Both Torah and Haftorah readings become infused with literary beauty – the lyrical prose of Deuteronomy accompanied by the lovely poetry of the late Isaiah, filled with images of nature’s grandeur as a reflection of the divine, beckoning us to look around at the world and the heavens and there find G-d.
This turning away from harshness towards hope and tenderness reflects the history of the period. Seventy years after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and exile in Babylonia, the ascendancy of Persia brought a king who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Isaiah’s writings from that time offer consolation and hope for a future of life back in the homeland.
Thus Teshuvah – a return from exile to home, from harshness to spiritual comfort, and, for us, a turning from the concerns of ordinary life to a remembering of the divine – is undertaken in a milieu of beauty which awakens the soul to the process of positive change.
We know that the perception of beauty affects us deeply. We crave beauty, we seek it out, we spend our precious moments dwelling on that which offers it. So, for example, the harmonies of violin music are so arresting as to bring tears to our eyes. A Dutch still life entices us with its intricacies and balance; time stops while we gaze at it. Intense patterns on flowers are gorgeous beyond human imagination. Birds’ plumage dazzles us with striking elaborations. The music of synagogue prayers draws us in; we sing and the notes hum inside us. We gaze at colors of a sunset sky; we rush outside to see a rainbow.
We perceive beauty and drink spiritual nectar – tasty, nourishing, filling. Every single human being is endowed with this faculty, through whatever sense functions within them.
On the physical level, there seems to be no biological utility to this capacity we have for deep appreciation of certain “results” of our five senses. Call it a gift from G-d, a blessing. But still, nothing in biology is maintained unless it endows the species with something positive to strengthen and perpetuate itself. The biologic utility of the pleasures of food, sex, etc seems obvious. But what about the pleasures of seeing or hearing beauty in nature or in the artistic creations of humankind?
This pleasure feels like an instinctual form of love, an immediate response on a tiny scale. Suppose you come across a wild iris in the woods. The iris is existing happily in its own environment; it doesn’t need you for food or water. You find it beautiful, it pleases you. You have experienced a quantum of love for this little iris. Now you care about it. A connection has been made.
A piece of music stirs us – how beautiful! It was composed by a human being, played by other human beings. We don’t know them; they may look nothing like us. And yet, some of that sense of beauty, that love we felt for the music spills out onto the humans who created it. A connection has been made.
Look out over a swath of treetops. The pattern of greens and rounded shapes is so pleasing. We can’t help but love the trees, plus the whole web of nature that sustains them and relies on them. A connection has been made.
Our ability to take pleasure from the natural world and from artistic creations of humankind creates threads of connections between each of us and the myriad elements of nature.
Beauty does have biological utility. It is the antidote to narcissism and loneliness. It connects us to the web of existence in the world, causes us to care about it, love it, and of course, do everything we can to preserve it.
Genesis was right. We are stewards of the world. We are the only species that can preserve it or cause large scale destruction of it. Look for beauty in the world and there you will find the passion to preserve it.
Lois Rosenthal is a member of Temple Tifereth Israel Winthrop where she teaches Hebrew School, does Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring, and participates in Shabbat services.