Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Eqev 5768/August 23, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

An Hour of Grace

(on the Haftarah of Parashat Ekev:  Isaiah 49:14—51:3)

 

Devorah Ganz

Center for Basic Studies in Judaism

In this haftarah, the second of the seven prophetic readings of consolation that follow the ninth of Ab, the prophet Isaiah brings up ideas that were mentioned earlier in his prophecy: Redemption is near and it will be unconditional, a sort of “promise no matter what,” as Nahmanides put it:

Thus, this discussion has explained that the strong consolations proclaimed by Isaiah of blessed memory and which were not [conditionally] stated with the expressions of "if you will heed" or "if you will worship [Him] " will materialize under any circumstances… those prophecies which were fulfilled were realized, and those which have not been fulfilled remain for the future, at which time they will surely be consummated. [1]

This is the Redemption of an “hour of favor,” [2] Redemption that precedes repentance, as in the words of the prophet:   “I wipe away your sins like a cloud, your transgressions like mist – come back to Me, for I redeem you” (Isa. 44:22).  Alongside such ideas, in the haftarah we detect great efforts of persuasion.   Isaiah, as prophet of consolation, turns to the exiles and announces the coming of Redemption that will put an end to their exile and servitude and will enable them to return to the land of Israel and renew their life on its soil; nevertheless, he needs to use strong expressions, and these attest to his enormous need to convince his audience, the exiles. Here is an example:

Regarding the people’s words, “Zion says, the Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isa. 49:14), the prophet answers, “Can a woman forget her baby, or disown the child of her womb?  Though she might forget, I never could forget you” (Isa. 49:15). Further on, the prophet raises a second image: “Can spoil be taken from a warrior, or captives retrieved from a victor?  Yet thus said the Lord:  Captives shall be taken from a warrior, and spoil shall be retrieved from a tyrant; for I will contend with your adversaries, and I will deliver your children” (49:24-25).

The two examples cited by the prophet are emotions and events that do not normally occur.  The first example emphasizes the strongest and closest emotion that exists in human nature and perhaps even in nature in general, as Abarbanel notes (in his commentary on verse 15):  “This comparison is based on the greatest possible love and mercy being that of a woman for her newborn child.” In other words, the prophet chose to speak in a metaphor of the strongest reciprocal bond that exists among mankind, yet nevertheless it is still possible, although highly exceptional, for this bond to be damaged so that the mother forgets the fruit of her womb; but not so, the Holy One, blessed be He.  The possibility of G-d forgetting His people does not exist; they might have been abandoned, but never forgotten.

The second example is a variation on the same theme.   In the world we know, it is inconceivable that spoil be taken from the victor or tyrant, but in the extreme case even this could happen.  But with the Lord, this is not so:  the “spoil” – the people of Israel who are in the hands of the captors, the warrior, will be taken back by G-d, the Deliverer.

Why did the prophet need to resort to such strong expressions of persuasion?  What prevented the exiles from receiving tidings of redemption with open arms?   Zalman Shazar spoke picturesquely of Isaiah as someone situated on a lofty summit. [3]   In the first part of the book the summit looks out over the entire universe. In the second part there is also a summit, but it is entirely in the national realm:  “This part is giddy with faith in Israel’s redemption, Israel’s redemption in all its facets.  The prophet is imbued with hope of overcoming all the travails of the return, all the travails of Redemption.”

What hold the exiles back from sharing in the prophet's joy?  Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency (French 12th century biblical commentator) explains (Isaiah 49:14):  Zion, her sons having being in exile a long time, thought that I had abandoned her and forgotten her.”  In other words, the prolonged time spent in exile had led the exiles to think that G-d had forgotten them, and now they needed to be convinced that this was not the case.

A similar message emerges from Abarbanel’s interpretation of this verse:   Zion says, ‘The Lord has forsaken me’ – as if Zion were complaining, seeing the exceptionally long duration of the exile, and saying the Lord has forsaken me; as a man forsakes his wife and goes off, so, too, the Holy One, blessed be He…  This is but a metaphor expressing the exceptionally long duration of the exile.”  In other words, in Abarbanel’s opinion the length of the exile is what led to despair, to the feeling of having been forgotten and abandoned, and it is against this feeling that the prophet is struggling, admitting that the people had indeed been abandoned, “but not forgotten.”  Abarbanel, however, adds reasons for the exiles' misgivings. [4]   Israel had become impoverished in the Babylonian exile, and, living under foreign domination, they were keenly aware of their loss of political independence and military ability; a sense of humiliation and contempt at having lost their land overwhelmed them, like the thought that due to the sins they had committed they would not enjoy the privilege of being redeemed; or, as they put it, the Lord had abandoned them. 

According to Yehezkel Kaufmann, since the people were not united in aspiring for redemption, in believing in it, and in sincerely returning to G-d, they did not share the assuredness and enthusiasm of the prophet, and redemption did not come. [5]   In his opinion, the tribulations of every-day life made it difficult for them to relate to tidings of Redemption.   As he put it, “Daily troubles were closer to their hearts than the great historical debate.” [6]

Yair Hoffmann is of the opinion that the prophet speaking here is the prophet who immigrated to the land of Israel with a small handful of Jews who came back in the return to Zion; the elite among them was disappointed with the “small-scale” redemption and the low social level of the returnees. The verses cited above reflect an attempt to cope with the low morale of the disenchanted.  This was the prophet’s way to motivate the exiles in Babylonia to immigrate to the land of Israel and likewise to get them to stay—by making unconditional promises that everything would improve in the near future. [7]

Presumably these and other circumstances led to a sense of having been abandoned by the Lord.   But if we pay close attention, we note that the prophet returns in the haftarah to the imagery of a woman who had been abandoned and had lost her husband and children:  “And you will say to yourself, ‘who bore these for me when I was bereaved and barren, exiled and disdained – by whom, then, were these reared?  I was left all alone – and where have these been?’” (Isa. 49:21).   She was bereaved and barren.   Kaufmann notes further on that the allegory of Zion as widowed, here and in other prophecies of Isaiah as the prophet of consolation, comes from the book of Lamentations.  Whether or not we accept this, it is clear that the theme of Lamentations is the opposite of a prophecy of consolation.   Lamentations states, “there is none to comfort her”; here the prophet enjoins, “Comfort, oh comfort My people.”   In the condition of a barren woman who has undergone a crisis of abandonment, divorce and bereavement, she is now called upon to believe that she will once again be a beloved wife and mother of many sons and daughters.  Presumably the exiles found it difficult to believe that such a transformation was possible.

Deportation and destruction had not been a trifling matter.  The destruction of the Temple had caused a trauma in the relations between the people and their G-d.   And now they were being called upon by Isaiah to believe that the crisis had come to an end.  A new era was dawning, the time of Redemption, and all this without making Redemption conditional on repentance.  A people who had been raised on belief in reward and punishment was incapable of believing in this sharp transition.  Sometimes a feeling of guilt has a paralyzing effect, preventing one from believing that things will be good, that there will be change.   Therefore in his prophecy Isaiah repeated time and again the idea of an “hour of favor,” and called on the exiles to take advantage of this window of opportunity, the Lord’s desire for Redemption now, since the time of forgiveness had come. 

Isaiah as prophet of consolation frequently mentions the exodus from Egypt.   Both acts of redemption have something in common – they are both the result of an “hour of favor,” of G- d’s desire to redeem here and now, not because of any merits the people have but because of His grace.   Therefore it is so extremely difficult to accept the idea that they will be redeemed, and for this reason the prophet must call to his aid various expressions and metaphors that will be sufficiently strong and persuasive, as Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency said elsewhere, [8] “to [make Zion] submit by appealing to her heart” – by persuasion.

Isaiah is utterly convinced that Redemption will indeed come and tries with all his might to convey this assuredness to his audience.

                                                                                                                                          



[1] Ramban-Writings and Discourses, trans. C.B. Chavel, Vol. II, NY: Shilo, 1978, p. 606.

[2] Isa. 49:8:  “Thus said the Lord:   In an hour of favor I answer you.”

[3] Studies in the Book of Isaiah (Hebrew), Part 2, p. 301.

[4] In his commentary on the latter prophets, p. 190.

[5] Y., History of the Religion of Israel, trans. C.W. Efroymson, Vol. 4, N.Y.: Ktav, 1977, p.103ff. According to Kaufmann, the prophet was living in Babylonia and speaking to the exiles there.

[6] Likewise C. R. North, Second Isaiah, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1964, p. 194:  “The only obstacle in Zion’s way to redemption is her own skepticism.” 

[7] Yair Hoffmann, Olam ha-Tanakh, Isaiah, ed. Menahem Haran, Tel Aviv 1983, p. 234.

[8] In his commentary on verse 40:2:  “Double for all her sins.”