By Andrew Levy
It all fits perfectly. God sends a sign and a rainbow, and in so doing creates a new world. It sounds familiar, but this paraphrase is not based on the story of Noah. It is based on today’s haftarah.
We have no record of how the Rabbis chose the haftarah for any particular Torah reading. Yet we do not actually need any historical evidence. The texts they chose speak for themselves. The passage from the Prophets picked as a haftarah usually relates both linguistically and thematically to the Torah reading.
That is why today’s haftarah is so apposite. The words sign (ot in Hebrew) and bow or rainbow (keshet) appear in both readings – a clear linguistic link. There is a thematic connection too. In today’s Torah reading, God tells Noah that God will create a new covenant, and in so doing promises that there will be no more catastrophic global destruction (let us hope that that covenant still stands!). All creatures outside Noah’s ark are destroyed. Similarly, near the end of the haftarah, the text states that all flesh will come to worship God, and adds that ‘they shall go out and gaze at the corpses of those who rebelled against [God]’.
But, of course, there is something odd about the links between the haftarah and the Torah reading this Shabbat – because today’s hafarah is not the one assigned to Parashat Noach. Since today is Rosh Hodesh Marheshvan (the new moon for the month of Marheshvan), a few changes are made to the Shabbat morning service. Amongst these is the substitution of the normal haftarah for another reading which talks about the new moon. For this purpose, the Rabbis chose the final chapter of the book of Isaiah (chapter 66). That is the haftarah we are reading today.
Consequently, we should not expect there to be any link, whether linguistic or thematic, between the Torah reading and the haftarah today. New moons occur on Shabbat at random. At least, that is what I assumed.
In fact, however, it is no coincidence that we are reading Isaiah chapter 66 today. The book of Genesis is read over a period of twelve Shabbatot and we are near the beginning of that period. This means that there are two further new moons at the beginning of the next two months: Kislev and Tevet. One would have thought that (once in a blue moon!) these must coincide with Shabbat and thus entail reading Isaiah chapter 66. But actually that cannot happen. The Rabbis ensured that Rosh Hodesh Kislev can never fall on Shabbat. Rosh Hodesh Tevet, by contrast, regularly falls on Shabbat but it is in the middle of Hanukah, which takes precedence; so today’s haftarah is never read then either.
Today is therefore unique: Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Marheshvan is the only week that this haftarah can be read in the Genesis cycle. It can only fall when we learn about Noah, destruction, and rebirth. It all fits perfectly!
Andrew Levy is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan.