Part of the challenge of studying the prophecies of Yeshayahu is that they are meant to impact us, not just inform us. It is his images that matter, since they might permeate throughout our consciousness.  His goal isn’t to produce novel ideas, although we sometimes avoid those ideas so assiduously that they feel new, it is to change us.

Deaf and Blind

I opened with that for two reasons. First, I worry that I have been failing Yeshayahu, both in my live Shabbat morning shiur and in these online encapsulations of those events, have been turning what is supposed to be moving and impactful into more and mere words, ideas, concepts.  Second, the images he gives in the first section we will study this time are of the deaf and blind, whom he calls to hear and to look. And I worry that we remain deaf and blind to what he was trying to do.

Rashi thinks he was calling the Jewish people generally deaf and blind, where Radak notes verse 19, which speaks of Hashem’s servants as the most deaf and blind, and says that the people so strenuously resisted what the prophets were telling them that that was what they called the prophets. For Rashi, the prophets do have those qualities, but in a different way, in that they have closed themselves off to everything other than Hashem’s messages, and have borne the punishments they needed for their failings, readying them for their new role as Hashem’s messengers.

Either way, Yeshayahu is highlighting (as he does in verse 20) his listeners’ disinterest in what Hashem has to say. For Rashi, the verse expresses Hashem’s efforts to catch their attention, where Radak sees it as referring to all of their troubles and the prophets’ remonstrations, none of which move them to change or improve.

Narrow and Broad Deafness

In the next verse, the navi will move to the safer ground of Torah and mitzvot. Before we take that turn to ritualizing our service of Hashem, let’s stop to notice what Yeshayahu has said here: we don’t let Hashem’s messages into our consciousness because Hashem is calling for us to change, and we hate change. Even when the message is showing us how to avoid trouble or keep what’s good in our lives, if it requires change, we will reject it as untrue (we will say that those telling us what Hashem are the ones who are shutting their senses to the realities of the world).

Radak points out that that can extend to when Hashem manipulates our life experiences to nudge us to where we need to go. When life swims along, few of us make significant changes, since life is good. When times of trouble come, we can be too troubled to adjust. Meaning we are deaf and blind, unable to hear or see that which we need to. Forcing Hashem to seek another way.

Rashi and Radak relate the people’s insensitivity only to the messages coming their way, where Sefer haIkkarim 3;2 makes it broader. He says Yeshayahu is also pointing out that the Jews failed to work at fulfilling their potential, at bringing their innate good qualities to fruition. For Sefer haIkkarim, that is another kind of deafness and blindness, of which we are also guilty.

Despite the Abundance of Torah and Mitzvot

Verse 21 almost stands alone, since verse 22 returns to asking us to notice Hashem’s impact on the world, as a way of seeing reality as we should. But verse 21 says that Hashem wants to make His justice known (or, perhaps, wants to help us improve, as we will see), so he made Torah great and mighty. Radak reads the verse as a continuation of the rebuke before and after, that Hashem will perform the wonders of the future as a way of bringing His Name and Justice to the world’s attention, but we remain recalcitrant, refusing to recognize that our sins are what lead to our sufferings.

Multiplying Mitzvot to Foster Success

That does not match the reading (perhaps not peshat oriented) of R. Chananya b. Akashya in the last Mishnah of Makkot, that Hashem wanted to give us merits, so He made more Torah and mitzvot, citing this verse. This has become passingly familiar to many of us, because it won the franchise of being the sentence we say after a shiur to be sure we can justify reciting a Kaddish de-rabannan.  The simplest reading of it is that the more mitzvot we have, the more chances we have to do good. Bartenura adds that Hashem also included some mitzvot we would have done even without a commandment, such as refraining from eating blood. As a favor to us, Hashem commanded it, meaning we get reward for that which we would have done anyway.

Rambam famously offers a different reading. He says that it is one of the foundations of the faith (although I am not aware of anyone who has found the source for his claim) that if a person keeps one mitzvah with the purest motives of serving Hashem—having removed all other motives than the service of Hashem—that earns him or her a share in the World to Come.  To make it easier to find that sweet spot of Hashem’s service, Hashem gave a Torah with a wide range of mitzvot, increasing the likelihood that each of us will find one we can perform with those pure motives.

Rambam doesn’t discuss whether that one act guarantees that share or if the person can also lose that share by other actions he or she may take.  Nor does he mention here that there are levels in the World to Come—one mitzvah might get us in, but that should not be confused with having completed our task in life.

Seeing the Real Reason for Our Being Downtrodden

The rest of the verses in this section, 22-25, return to the theme of the Jews’ failing to experience their subjugations and degradations in the right way. Few of them, as Rashi and Radak agree the prophet means to say, stopped to wonder why this has happened, to see that their refusal to walk Hashem’s path is what has led them to where they are. Radak on verse 24 comments that they instead insist this must be happenstance, not sin, which stops them from taking the vital step to turning all of it around, repenting of their sins.

In my experience, Jews’ today also reject the claim that it is our failure to hear what Hashem wants that bring our troubles. Some will say that’s a function of living in a post-Holocaust world, but Jewish history shows two general truths:

1) No generation of Jews came close to being observant, in the sense of constructing lives that aimed at fulfilling Hashem’s Will.

2) Jews have experienced many calamities before (on, I have been reviewing Ran’s Drashot; the tenth one, which I’m working on now, makes explicit that he is writing after the first experience of the Black Death, which killed a greater percentage of Europe even than World War II), but have never, as a nation, taken those calamities as proof of a need for deep change.

We close our ears to the message we most need to hear, and it’s not because this or that tragedy is too great, or times are too good. It’s because it’s difficult to hear that message, to see how we would need to adjust our lives if we accepted that message.

Hearing the Message is the First Step to Greatness

Gittin 58a tells a story of R. Yehoshua visiting Rome and being told there was a handsome boy being held captive (in those times, that was a money-making proposition, as it is today for ISIS and for Somali pirates).  R. Yehoshua goes to where the boy is being held, and calls out the first half of verse 24, Who gave Jacob to plunder, etc., and the boy responds with the rest, it is Hashem to Whom we have sinned, etc.

  1. Yehoshua says he is certain this boy will grow up to teach Torah, and determines to ransom him regardless of cost. The boy grows to be R. Yishmael b. Elisha, a prominent Tanna (and out of the ordinary—search his name, or even just the Avraham Fried song in which he appears, and you’ll see).

Possibly, his recognizing a random verse assured his future, but more likely it was his resonating with this particular verse well enough to memorize it.  His ability to accept what it says, while in captivity for no obvious reason, suggested he was neither deaf nor blind in the ways that troubled Yeshayahu. Anyone who is not deaf or blind, the story implies, will grow to teach the Jewish people the ways we need to go.

The World Is For Hashem’s Glory

The first ten verses of chapter 43 change tone, Hashem promising us that He will come to help us, guide us again to greatness as in the past (where He, for example, took us through the Sea without trouble). This is not an abandonment of the previous comments, though, as verse eight shows, since Hashem speaks of taking out a nation that is blind even though it has eyes, deaf even though it has ears. We might not improve enough to deserve it, but Hashem will do it for us, for other reasons.

Verse seven asserts that everything was created for the glory of Hashem. At one level, this can mean Nature itself responds to what is better or worse for Hashem’s glory, is flexible rather than absolute in its laws.

That is how the rabbis in Berachot 62b explained the fact that bread made to be לחם הפנים, the showbread for the Temple, stayed fresh for the whole 7-10 days it would be on the שלחן, the table in the Sanctuary, whereas the best bakers in Alexandria could not do that—it wasn’t the baking, it was that Hashem made the world for His glory. Bread that served that purpose stayed fresher longer than bread made for another purpose (which is not to say that we can make that bread any old way.

Testifying to Our Overall Righteousness

There is a long story in Avodah Zarah, 2a-4b, about the non-Jews’ complaints in times to come, that they were not given a chance to serve Hashem as we did. One part of Hashem’s answer is to challenge them on whether they kept the Noahide laws they were given, which the Gemara sees as the meaning of the phrase וראשונות ישמיענו, the first ones they should tell us. In verse 10, Hashem says “you” are my witnesses, which this Gemara (on 3a) ascribes to Hashem bringing prominent non-Jews to agree that Jews were dedicated to Hashem’s mitzvot, such as Nimrod testifying that Avraham had refused to worship idols, Lavan conceding that Ya’akov could not be suspected of theft, etc.

Ta’anit 11a has another option for the identity of these witnesses. The Gemara recognizes that people might wonder how Hashem could know our misdeeds, and offers verses that show Hashem has ways to access our most intimate moments. Options include the walls of our houses, the angels who accompany us, and our souls. But the last option is that our very body parts will do so, based on verse ten’s saying, אתם עדי, you are my witnesses.

It is a stimulating idea, that our very bodies bear the mark of all of our actions, and will then reveal those to Hashem when the time comes. If we hear that, and everything else in this section, we can move to a better road.