Hashem Is Hashem, and We’re His Witnesses

Verses 11-13 of chapter 43 declare that there is no savior other than Hashem, that Hashem has shown His mettle, as it were, by fulfilling previous promises of salvation and that no one can stop Hashem. With inconsequential differences, Rashi and Radak agree that these verses are said to remind us of Hashem’s ability and interest in bringing our future salvation.

A phrase at the end of verse 12, where Hashem says that we are His witnesses, adds an element we might fail to notice. Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Yitro comments that whoever observes Shabbat testifies to Hashem’s having created the world in six days (however we understand that) and rested on the seventh.

It reminds us that we have been assigned the role of witnesses to Hashem’s existence and involvement with the world. We will see ramifications of that in the next set of verses, but an immediate point is that we are all of us told to be witnesses, not only those who have made a profession of their Jewish involvements. Part of being Jewish (codified in mitzvot like Shabbat, as we’ll see) is accepting our role as living witnesses to the truths of God’s existence and concern with the world.

How Outreach Can Backfire

A second point I notice right away is a matter of my education and the time in my life when I worked with those who did not yet claim to be observant.  Teachers (and I followed their lead) looked for ways to present adherence to Jewish practice as meaningful and attractive.

Shabbat, for example. I have heard and myself spoken of the day’s value in reminding us to step away from work one day a week, so that it not consume us. I have heard and myself spoken of Shabbat as safeguarding family closeness, the meals of the day enforcing a time for parents to reconnect with children, siblings to fight, I mean reconnect, with each other.

All true, and importantly effective in enticing people to try observance. But 43;12 tells us it is insufficient, that if we stop there, we are failing to capture a vital aspect of the day, its being an act of testimony. We gain much from keeping Shabbat, but we are keeping it, fundamentally, because we are supposed to announce to all humanity that Hashem created this world in a finite time (however we understand six days), and then “rested,” to teach us how to conduct ourselves.

Sending to Babylon

Verse 14 tells us Hashem sent to Bavel on our behalf. Rashi brings Yonatan b. Uzziel’s opinion that this predicts the Jews’ exile there, as punishment for their sins. He and Radak read it instead as Hashem’s taking us out of Bavel, sending Koresh to redeem us, forcing our oppressors to flee on the ships that were their pride and joy.

Megillah 29a offers an option that might be rooted in our role as witnesses. R. Shimon b. Yochai says the Jews are so dear to Hashem that the Shechinah exiles itself with us, each time we are exiled. To support that contention regarding the Babylonian exile, he cites this verse, that Hashem sent [Himself, as it were] on our behalf.

He does not explain why Hashem does that, but our role as eternal witnesses seems one plausible suggestion.

Salvations of the Past, Glories To Come

Verses 16-21 give some specificity to the redemption being promised. First, Hashem reviews past salvations, to remind us of the horizons of the possible– a dry path through the sea, a reference to the Splitting of Yam Suf, the last stage of our physical exit from Egypt. He also destroyed, in an instant, riders and horses, an entire army.

Rashi reads that, too, as a reference to Egypt, but Radak puts it (as he did once before) in a more contemporary context, Sancheriv’s army’s sudden destruction on the walls of Jerusalem. Radak reminds us of how astounding that event was to those who lived through it. Sancheriv had conquered and exiled Israel, and conquered all of Judea other than Jerusalem. From the stories in II Melachim and elsewhere in Yeshayahu, it is clear that the Jews of the time expected the same to happen to them.

When they woke one morning to find the dominant army decimated, it was an experience of salvation that was sudden, wonderful, and a reminder that we limit Hashem unthinkingly, not even realizing we’re doing it. As the prophet invites us to contemplate a coming salvation, one piece of it is expanding our imaginative capabilities.

What We Should Remember

Verse 18 tells us אל תזכרו ראשונות, not to mention these first miracles, because we will be too busy thanking and praising Hashem for the reworking of the natural order that is about to come.

Berachot 13a points out that it does not mean we will disregard those earlier miracles completely (there is, for example, a continuing mitzvah to mention the Exodus twice a day, even in ימות המשיח, the days of the Messiah). Rather, the later redemption will become the more focal point of our recollections of the wonders Hashem has done for us.

The predictions for those new wonders offer good reason to suggest we today should adjust our rhetoric exactly as Yeshayahu suggested, focusing on events of the last century or so even more than on events of old.

Making the Desert Bloom Can Happen Now

Verse 19 promises to perform new wonders, which Radak assumes to be the ingathering of the exiles.  The verse itself speaks of making a path through the deserts, making rivers of formerly arid land. Verse 20 says this will be to sustain His chosen nation, whom Hashem formed to sing His praises.

Radak picks up on the verse’s saying עתה תצמח, it will happen now, to indicate that the redemption can come at any moment, if we all follow Hashem’s Will (as a famous story in Sanhedrin 98a has Eliyahu say, proving it from Tehillim 95; 7, היום אם בקולו תשמעו, today if you listen to His Voice). Unfortunately, as Jewish history shows, that’s a big “if.”

Noticing the Redemption as it Unfolds

I don’t think it is being overly Zionistic to notice that some of these have and are in the process of coming true. Much of the desert has bloomed, we are seeing ingatherings of exiles.  The plaque outside Montefiore’s Windmill in Yerushalayim says there were only a few thousand Jews (and a similar number of Arabs) in all of Israel in the late 1800s.

Now there are millions, a growth rate I think might be unmatched, period, but is certainly unmatched in terms of a nation that had once lived somewhere and then returned to it after an absence of almost two thousand years.

In the same vein, I once saw (but can no longer find) there is a video clip of an aged R. Ovadya Yosef, z”l, being asked about saying shira on Yom HaAtsmaut, a charged question. He dismissed the political side of it, and spoke about the pre-State Palestine, where Jews had to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops to get to Israel, an obstacle that disappeared as soon as the State was declared. Since then, as he noted, the population of Israel has multiplied ten times (in sixty some odd years!). That’s worth singing about.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Hashem and Redemption

The line about speaking about these new wonders hit home for me this year in a way it has not in the past. I have spent some part of my speaking and writing on the belief in Hashem, reaching back for experiences like Creation, the Exodus, the Giving of the Torah, the experience of the Temple, and so on as support for our progress towards greater faith.

It seems to me that, living when we do (and following R. Ovadyah z”l’s example), perhaps that’s an error. Perhaps we are being told that in our times, we are fortunate enough to have reached the point that we should speak about what we’re seeing, in the past century, in the past half-century, and in our own times.

We have seen the Jews from Arab lands come back, the Ethiopians come back, the Russians come back, and continue to see other Jews picking up and returning. We see the desert bloom, literally, and we see the boom of the State of Israel in the world of innovation and intellectual advancement.

These are wonders we were told would happen, coming true. As Rambam pointed out in his Introduction to the Mishnah, the marker of a prophet is that s/he makes a prediction, and it bears out.  Watching Yeshayahu’s words come true, we might be well-advised to heed his admonition to speak about these, to see them as they should be seen, as active examples, in our lives, of the wonders of Hashem.

Why It’s Taken So Long

Verses 22-24 remind us that we’re the reason this all hasn’t come true yet (or, for us, why it’s taken so long to get to the point in the redemption we see now)—we don’t turn to Hashem. Despite Hashem’s having obligated us fairly minimally, we don’t call out to Hashem, don’t bring our sacrifices to Hashem, don’t honor Him with our rites.

Instead, we make Hashem work, as it were, with our sins. Rashi understands that to mean that we “forced” Hashem to help Bavel conquer us and the rest of the world, Radak thinks it’s the sins themselves that we “force” Hashem to bear. Either way, we are being told a truth we often deny, that our actions are some or all of the reason for the delay in seeing these wonders.

No Cause for Despair

True as that is, culpable as we are, verses 25-28 tell us that this is nothing new, that our forefathers (Rashi thinks Avraham, Radak thinks Adam) also sinned, but that Hashem can bear sin, can wipe away sin such that it is not remembered. Because we are linked—we are His witnesses, as we said earlier—Hashem’s honor benefits from forgiving us, from focusing on the good we’ve done. All we need to do is get back to that good, get ourselves enough away from sin that Hashem can bring the great salvations He has waiting. Or, in our case, find our way far enough from sin to have those salvations grow and multiply, as R. Ovadya said in that clip about the population of Israel, כהנה וכהנה, doubling and tripling what we already have.

This is the end of the fourth chapter of Yeshayahu that we have studied together, and we have finally reached concrete promises of greatness to come, some of which we are blessed to see. To me, the key points of noticing this are that it can be unimaginably better, if we can improve ourselves, that it can and should be the focus of how we speak of Hashem, and that part of our job and role is to talk it up, to serve as witnesses, to give the testimony, that reminds the world that we are today seeing Hashem’s intervention in world events, to the great good fortune of Jews and of the world at large.