If they followed the general rule, the Haftarot for the two days of Rosh HaShanah would link up with the established themes of the festival. They would deal with Creation, God’s record books, the sounding of the shofar.
Actually a quite different principle has been brought to bear. There is a horizontal link with the Torah readings for the two days, and a vertical link with each other. Both Haftarot focus on the prayers of Bibical women. Both address the same subject – children. Taken together, they show how mothers think – their hope for their children, and their disappointment when their children’s lives do not seem a success.
If we take the two Yom Kippur Haftarot into consideration, we find an additional theme – redemption, assuring us that all will turn out well in the end. So together we have three themes – hope, disappointment, and redemption.
These themes are important enough in themselves, but additionally they link up with the major drama of the season, the blowing of the shofar. The first shofar note is t’ki’ah – hope. The second is sh’varim/t’ru’ah, sometimes joined, sometimes separated – disappointment. The third note is a further t’ki’ah – it all turns out all-right in the end.
The first day’s Haftarah is the prayer of Hannah (I Sam. 2). Hannah is childless. She is taunted and humiliated because she has no children. She prays that God may hear her petition. She has a child and harbours great hopes for him, proud that he will serve God in the Temple.
The second day we read the story of Rachel (Jer. 31). Longing for children, she becomes a mother at last. But her hopes do not endure. Her children are taken into exile. Rachel weeps, powerless to rescue them. All she can do is pray that the time when come when they will return home, with “hope for their latter end”. Psalm 30, part of the daily morning service, promises that instead of nights filled with tears, there will be joy in the morning, and it is Divine pledges such as this which save Rachel from complete disintegration.
The two Haftarot are a good choice as metaphors for the Jewish experience. Our history is an amalgam of laughter and tears, of hope and horror, of dreams and desolation. We measure time by our Rosh HaShanahs, the days when we rejoiced and the days when we mourned. We dread the disappointments, but we know that without them the hopes would have no meaning.
And in case anyone has not noticed, the two Haftarot demonstrate that the old canard is simply not true, the accusation that Judaism has no place for women. On the great mountain-top of the Jewish calendar, it is women who are gathered, women whose emotions are supreme, women who pray with a fervour that very few men can emulate. Note too that when it comes to the festive days of the year, one yom-tov after another is endowed with effect because of women – Esther on Purim, a shepherd girl on Pesach, Ruth on Shavu’ot. Leave the men to their synagogal practices and remember where the real power lies in Judaism – with the women.