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Parashat Ki-Tavo

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Isaiah on the Land and the People


 Department of Bible;


Mikraot Gedolot Ha-Keter


Isaiah’s words of consolation are mostly cast in the metaphor of a desolate woman, without husband or children.   She is husbandless because of dissolution of marriage, [1] and childless either because of barrenness [2] or bereavement. [3]   Even when the proximate context does not concern barrenness or bereavement, this theme sometimes appears suddenly, as in the haftarah of this week’s reading:   “Your sun shall set no more, your moon no more withdraw; for the Lord shall be a light to you forever, and your days of mourning shall be ended” (Isa. 60:20).

The expression, “your days of mourning shall be ended,” conjures up the image of a woman bereaved of her children, and contains tidings that days of consolation are at hand.  Nevertheless this expression is problematic:   does one ever cease mourning the death of a child?  For example, consider the instructions given by Joab to the wise woman of Tekoa, to pretend before King David that she is in mourning over the death of her son:   “Put on mourning clothes and don’t anoint yourself with oil; [4] and act like a woman who has grieved a long time over a departed one” (II Sam.14:2).  Clearly such comportment appears reasonable and would not arouse the king’s suspicions, for who can set a limit for the period of mourning of a mother for her son? [5]

If so, why does the prophet speak as if mourning were a sentence that has a specific time limit, and once it has been completed life returns to normal?  It seems to me that the prophet chose the expression “your days of mourning shall be ended” (ve-shalmu, literally,“your days of mourning shall be completed”) because it contains two metaphors that act reciprocally, thus creating a special stylistic effect.

Metaphorically the text speaks of outward rites of mourning, which usually do have a time limit.   Some of these rites are spelled out in the stories of the death of Nadab and Abihu [6] and the death of the prophet Ezekiel, on the one hand, [7] and in the law regarding a beautiful woman who is taken captive, on the other. [8]   The rites include crying and wailing, secluding oneself, sitting silently doing nothing, and a marked change in patterns of dress and food. The mourner abandons all care for external appearance, most noticeably in not tending to one’s hair and fingernails.   In the story of the clever woman of Tekoa, Joab commanded her to refrain from anointing her body with oil (one of the signs of mourning), and naturally that leaves its mark on her facial skin.  Neglecting care for one’s looks was more evident among women than men, who apparently generally had beards and long side-burns. [9]   It was easy to discern a woman in mourning, and perhaps therefore Joab chose a woman, not a man, to present a picture of mourning.

The external indicators of mourning cease when life forces a person to return to the normal routine, but apparently there was a generally accepted period of time for displaying these outward signs, which we learn from the law regarding a beautiful woman who has been taken captive:  “She shall spend a month’s time … lamenting her father and mother.”   Mourning for longer than this depended on the wishes of the mourner and the depth of his feelings.   Clearly a bereaved mother who is blessed with other children has her time and attention taken up by raising her living children and cannot give herself over to unlimited grieving for the dead.

Thus, in his speech of consolation Isaiah alludes to the conclusion of such a period of mourning, but the picture he draws is reinforced by two metaphors.  Since the destruction of Zion is expressed both by desolation of the inhabited areas and desolation of the fallow fields, the metaphors revolve around this double imagery.   According to Otzar Leshon ha-Mikra, a Biblical dictionary, the principal meaning of the root a-b-l (in modern Hebrew, generally meaning to mourn) is to become dry, worn, withered.  This is the meaning in the kal and hiphil forms of the verb; only in the hitpa’el does this root have the meaning of “grieving, particularly over the dead, [10] or observing customs of mourning.”  The two different definitions are due to different sources from which the root derives.  The first meaning has a parallel root in Akkadian [11] and the second, a parallel root in Aramaic. 

The prophecy uses these multiple meanings of the root to reinforce the sense of destruction, so that the meaning is not clear-cut.   When the prophet says, “The earth is withered (a-b-l), sear (n-b-l); the world languishes (m-l-l), it is sear (n-b-l),” is he talking only about dryness and desolation, or is he also sharing with us the earth’s sadness over its barrenness?   This sense is reinforced by the sophisticated use of the root m-l-l, synonymous to a-b-l, which also denotes dryness and withering, as is clear from the context in Joel 1:12:  “The vine has dried up, the fig tree withers (m-l-l), pomegranate, palm and apple – all the trees of the field are sear.”  But the root m-l-l also carries with it another meaning, relating to sadness, [12] as we see also from Isaiah 24:7:  “The new wine fails, the vine languishes (m-l-l).”   Adding to this the compactness of poetry – for the earth (or the land, the world, etc.) is also used metonymically to denote those who dwell on it – we come up with a verse that can be read on several levels.  When Jeremiah says, “Judah is in mourning (a-b-l), her settlements languish (umlelu)” (Jer. 14:2), is he speaking of the desolate soil of Judah, lamenting its desolation, of its inhabitants being gone and its soil not tilled?  Or is he speaking of the inhabitants of Judah who are in mourning over the absence of their brethren and the land lying in waste?   And when he speaks of its settlements (lit., its gates) languishing, does the expression refer to physical desolation, or to the despondent spirits of those who dwell within the gates, as follows from the continuation of the text:   “and the outcry of Jerusalem rises”?   So, too, in the verse, “And the pastures of the shepherds shall languish (a-b-l), and the summit of Carmel shall wither (y-b-š)” (Amos 1:2), notwithstanding the parallel between “wither” and “languish,” the text conjures up a picture of shepherds in mourning, their heads covered in mourning due to the barrenness of the earth. [13]  

Furthermore, sometimes the prophet is clearly playing with the multiplicity of meanings of the root a-b-l in order to convey a deeper message:  since human life is dependent on the soil, laying waste to the tilled land spells disaster for those living on it.  Moreover, just as a person who eats his full looks fresher and more sated, while in time of famine he looks hollow and shriveled, the roots describing dryness are fitting both for the land and for those who dwell on it.   Thus, in Joel 1:9-10:   “Offering and libation have ceased from the House of the Lord, the priests must mourn (a-b-l) who minister to the Lord.  The country is ravaged, the ground must mourn (a-b-l) [14], for the new grain is ravaged, the new wine is dried up, the new oil has failed (m-l-l).”   Likewise, let us add that a field which has been left untended is like a person who does not tend to his outer appearance because of mourning; or should we say that when a person lets his hair go unkempt he is like a field left wild?

So when Isaiah says, “your days of mourning shall be ended,” he speaks of Zion again becoming inhabited, like a bereaved mother who bears new children, as said in the beginning of the chapter:  “Raise your eyes and look about; they have all gathered and come to you.  Your sons shall be brought from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders” (Isa. 60:4); but the cosmogonic context of the verse, “Your sun shall set no more, your moon no more withdraw” (Isa. 60:20), relates to the understanding that the text speaks of the ravaged land of Zion suddenly blossoming, the splendor of its burgeoning vegetation chasing away all memory of its dry, desolate days, and thus the period of sadness comes to an end.  The next verse indicates that the words, “your mourning (a-b-l),” also allude to the dryness of the vegetation, since in the same verse Isaiah suddenly switches [15] to a plant metaphor to describe the people of Israel:   “And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; they are the shoot that I planted, my handiwork in which I glory.”

In contrast to Isaiah, who only hints that renewal of the soil characterizes the end of exile, Ezekiel expresses the same idea quite unequivocally:  “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near” (Ezek. 36:8).   This has been interpreted as a clear indicator of Redemption and fulfillment of the prophecy of consolation:   “Rabbi Abba said:   There is no better verse than this to signify the end of exile” (Sanhedrin 98a).

[1] See Isaiah 49:14:  Zion says, ‘The Lord has forgotten me.’” Isaiah 50:1:  “Thus said the Lord:  Where is the bill of divorce of your mother whom I dismissed?  And which of My creditors was it to whom I sold you off?   You were only sold off for your sins, and your mother dismissed for your crimes.”

[2] See Isaiah 54:1:  “Shout, O barren one, you who bore no child!  Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail!   For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused – said the Lord.”

[3] See Isaiah 49:20-21:  “The children you thought you had lost shall yet say in your hearing, ‘The place is too crowded for me; make room for me to settle.’  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?”

[4] Also Daniel 10:2-3:  “At that time, I, Daniel, kept three full weeks of mourning.  I ate no tasty food, nor did any meat or wine enter my mouth.   I did not anoint myself until the three weeks were over.”

[5] Compare with Jacob’s prolonged mourning over the “death” of his son Joseph.   Even Job, who accepted Heaven’s decree with submission, could hardly be comforted for the death of his earlier children by the birth of later ones!

[6] “And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.  But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought.’”

[7] Ezek. 24:16-17:  “O mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes from you through pestilence; but you shall not lament or weep or let your tears flow.  Moan softly; observe no mourning for the dead:   Put on your turban and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover over your upper lip, and do not eat the bread of comforters.”

[8] Deut. 21:12-13:  “You shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb.  She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother.”   Also the derogatory description of Babylon, in Isaiah 47:5, belongs here:  Sit silent; retire into darkness, O Fair Chaldea; nevermore shall they call you Mistress of Kingdoms.”

[9] See Leviticus 19:27:  “You shall not round off the side-growth on your head.”

[10] Mourning is not only over the dead, but over anything that causes pain and distress, such as plague, defeat and famine.   The sin of the golden calf brought in its wake deep mourning by the people, so much so that they removed their adornments.  See Ex. 33:4, after the golden calf:  “When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on his finery.”

[11] Cf. in the Akkadian dictionary, CAD, under abalu B:   to dry up, dry out.

[12] See Ps. 6:3:  “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I languish (m-l-l).”

[13] See Jeremiah 14:3-4: “Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns, they found no water.  They returned, their vessels empty.  They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads.”   This is preceded by the verse, “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish.  Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises.”

[14] Targum Jonathan appreciated the significance of being dried up, rendering this phrase as “the land was destroyed.”  Radak, in his commentary on Isaiah 24:4 said:   Avelah (rendered as “mourn” by the JPS) – this refers to being ruined, likewise “the new wine is dried up (a-b-l)” (verse 7, below).  Menahem ben Shimon, a medieval bible exegete, took a similar approach to the verse in Jeremiah, even though the parallels speak of dryness.   In Joel 1:10, even though Joseph Qara brings up this connection, he does not view this as a parallel construction, rather as cause and effect:  The country is ravaged, the ground must mourn – this belongs to the type of double construction that at first appears enigmatic, but when taken side by side become clear.  When it says ‘the country is ravaged (lit. robbed, plundered),’ I do not know of what it is plundered; when it says ‘the ground must mourn,’ I do not know what it must mourn.  But the key to understanding lies in their juxtaposition:  As I said, the land is robbed, for it has been robbed of its grain; and the ground must mourn – because the new wine has dried up.”   Ibn Ezra viewed this passage as metaphorically referring to those who reside in the land:   The ground must mourn – this means its inhabitants mourn; the new wine is dried up – metaphorically, as in ‘joy is dried up.’”

[15] In modern Bible study many scholars have solved the problem presented by this juxtaposition of verses by assuming that verses 21-22 are a later addition.   An exception to this rule is the commentary by J. L. Koole in the series, Historical Commentary on the Old Testatment.  He suggests taking the word evlekh in the sense of regret that is related to guilt and punishment, which would mean that the term of punishment has been completed (similar to what appears in Isaiah 40:2:  “that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated.”)   He views the verb ve-shalmu, which is in the kal form, as hinting at the word shalom in Isaiah 60:17.