As the young man takes his place on the podium at the center of the synagogue, the murmur among the crowd grows increasingly audible. What begins as a series of hushed whispers quickly turns into a steady hum of background buzz that is as discernible as it is diverting.
Few, it seems, are paying much attention as the would-be cantor begins to croon, reciting the passages with mounting intensity and fervor even as many of those present are increasingly unmindful of his gallant efforts. "Baruch ata...," he chants, barely reciting the first two words of the blessing before a series of half-muted groans can be heard.
Fearing that the reader's pace might rival that of a cricket match, certain congregants apparently choose to express their dismay through a series of barely-concealed guttural gasps. Having released a little tension, they now feel free to settle back and relax, launching into a series of chats and conversations, despite the ritual being played out before them.
Though not quite reaching the decibel level of the Vuvuzela horns brandished by South African fans at the World Cup, the banter is equally distracting, taking on a life all its own in what has become a semi-official ritual I refer to as the Haftara rap.
Even as the inspiring visions of the prophets are being read on the dais, the guys to my right begin discussing the relative merits of various gadgets that have recently hit the market, with the iPad clearly exciting their interest more than Isaiah.
On another weekend, it might be the Yankees who trump Ezekiel, or Hollywood overwhelming Habakkuk in the battle for the attention-span of synagogue-goers.
Mistaking "Haftara time" for a form of halftime, it seems that many otherwise dutiful Jews proclaim their own brief intermission.INDEED, ON a recent Sabbath, I had a fine selection of topics to choose from while struggling to follow the reading of the Haftara – not that I was listening in to other people's conversations, mind you.
Nearby, in the Jewish equivalent of a Fox News Alert, there were running updates about a recent tornado that had struck Long Island and damaged some Jewish-owned homes and businesses. I could all but feel the funnel-shaped air whirling around me as I was treated to an in-depth mixture of analysis and commentary about how the Wizard of Oz had finally arrived in Great Neck.
I think I now understand why there is no need for newspapers to be published in Israel on Saturdays. You can get all the news you want simply by tuning in to your neighbors during the Haftara.
Israel is most assuredly the chosen nation. But once the Haftara reading gets started, we seem to take on a brand-new and far less flattering identity as well: that of the chattering people.
And the truth is that this is highly unfortunate, if only because the stories of our ancestors have so much relevance to our present situation. Take, for example, the story of Joshua dispatching two spies to scout out Jericho, which is a timely reminder of how we settled the Land of Israel more than three millennia before the establishment of the PLO.
Or how about Samuel the prophet's stirring example of clean Jewish leadership, free of corruption: "Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I robbed? Whom have I coerced?"
And then there was the reading from the Book of Judges two weeks ago, when Jephthah provided us with a straightforward lesson in hasbara. After the king of Ammon accused Israel of occupying his lands, and demanded that we "return them in peace," Jephthah would not cower, offering instead a spirited defense of the Jewish people's legitimate acquisition of territory. Invoking history, truth and morality, the fearless judge rebutted Israel's critics in a manner that our own Foreign Ministry would do well to emulate.
THE HAFTARA is a precious part of the synagogue service – short, lyrical and uplifting. What a shame that it has often become little more than a sidebar for chit-chat and conversation.
In the coming weeks, with the approach of Tisha Be'av, we will read Jeremiah's rebuke and Isaiah's reprimand of Israel for our sins, followed by seven Haftarot in a row of comfort, consolation and solace. It is a remarkable stretch, one which challenges us to look sharply at ourselves, both individually and collectively, before assuring us of a future gleaming with hope and promise. Taken to heart, these Haftarot can make us better human beings and better Jews.
If only we would just pay a little more attention.