Much of what we do—and what human beings have always done—is part of our search for security, for freedom from fear. Fear of famine, or drought, or illness, or war. Chapter 44 of Yeshayahu shows us another way to deal with our fears.
Fear of Abandonment
The chapter opens with Yeshayahu calling for Jews to listen, referring to them as עבדי, my slave (or servant) and the ones whom Hashem has chosen. Radak takes the metaphor as conveying Hashem’s unbreakable connection with us—when a slave steps wrong, the master might discipline him, but won’t abandon the investment. The Jews, too, can expect that Hashem won’t abandon them.
Which seems to have been a concern, since verse 2 has Hashem reminding the Jews that He formed and created them, that they shouldn’t fear, since (in verses 3-4) Hashem will re-water them, as it were, bringing them back to life and growth, like willows on the banks of a river.
Verse 5 then refers to four groups of people who will identify with Hashem or the Jews in some way. Radak thinks it’s for poetic effect, but Rashi sees it as dividing the Jewish people into four groups, the fully righteous, the ordinary Jews, בעלי תשובה (penitents), and converts. (For Rashi, verse 4 also referred to converts, even from Amalek). Making that grouping more interesting, Rashi thinks the verse refers only to the fully righteous and the penitents as attached to Hashem in particular; ordinary Jews and converts are more connected to the Jewish people.
Rambam disagrees with that last point; he cites this verse’s speaking of one who says “I am for Hashem” to support his encouraging words to a convert who had been told he was not fully part of the Jewish people—we may have the lineage of the Patriarchs, Rambam told him, but this convert has a direct link to Hashem.
That might also be more reassuring to us. If Hashem stands ready, as it were, to forge a similar bond with whoever comes to join, there’s no reason to fear our connection was broken; first, it wasn’t, but even if it were to be, we could reconnect, like converts.
Freedom From Caring About Others’ Views
Verses 6-20 are one unit, with two main ideas. Verses 6-8 remind us that Hashem alone has the power to redeem us, and to predict events unfailingly, miraculous and not. Radak defines redemption as being so free as not to have to worry about what other nations think.
This fits with the call to resist fear, since we are witnesses to the fact that there is no other power or god besides Hashem. It is also a reminder that, amazed as we can and should be at what we have seen, we must not forget how much more there is to come, in the pure political sense of redemption. Until an Israeli king (or government) can act as it deems fit, without the interference of other nations, this verse will not yet have come true.
The Foolishness Worshipping One’s Own Creations
The reason Hashem wants us to bear witness, and fend off fear, is made clear in the next verses, which speak of idolaters’ constructing their idols, taking the materials of alien worship and forming them into the shapes they want, but using the other material for their personal needs. A man might take half a beam of wood and make an idol of it, using the other half for warmth, or cooking and baking.
As witnesses to Hashem’s greater power, we are supposed to know there is nothing to that belief. Our confidence in the truths we know should suffice to face down the doubt and disbelief of those around us, as it was for Avraham.
We sometimes relegate this to the past, and then find ourselves unsettled by the knowledge that the greatest minds of our era—every era—disagree with our beliefs. Each generation is different, and the ways that the “wisest” people mock, deride, or disregard us change, but the underlying attitude is the same: they know better. Yeshayahu challenges us to reject fear, to remember that Hashem is in fact Master of the Universe, and to see the many flaws in their beliefs (because in each era, those of their beliefs that contradict Hashem’s ultimate power and freedom are no better than the belief that half of a block of wood could be used for ordinary human needs, the other half converted into an item worthy of worship).
This is, to me, a crucial point: part of being Jewish, since the time of Avraham, was facing down the smartest and best minds of each generation, all of whom are sure that we are mistaken, deluded, or worse. We are called upon to remember, hold fast to, and witness the greater truth that we know.
The Skies Should Sing
Verses 21-23 call on us to remember our status as Hashem’s servants, as well as that Hashem has forgiven our sins before (in Egypt, in the desert), and is ready to do so again. Radak thinks this will help us resist the attractiveness of others’ ideas. When verse 23 speaks of the skies, earth, mountains, and forests rejoicing and bursting into song, Radak treats it as a metaphor—it will be as if Nature itself rejoices when the Jews leave their exile.
Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Beshalach 6 takes a more literal view, seeming to see a literal reality behind this claim, that in some way, the skies and earth themselves rejoiced. I note this because I feel like we often ignore Jewish tradition’s comfort with the possibility that Nature has a certain kind of consciousness or will. Radak and other rationalists reject that idea, but Rashi and the Midrash go the other way (although, as always with Rashi, we can wonder whether an encounter with rationalism would have led him to adjust his views).
I also see a middle view, in which the metaphor has more literal meaning. While Radak seems to read the verse as just saying “it will be great when the Jews are returned from exile, so great that it will be as if the earth and skies are singing,” we can also read it as implying that there will be changes to Nature when the Jews come back.
For example, Israel was largely brown and barren for 1800 years, but the return of the Jews brought with it a flowering of the land, which might justifiably be seen as the land singing. If the skies produce enough rain now for millions of inhabitants, instead of enough for a few thousand, that is, poetically, a kind of song of the skies.
The Inherent Uncertainty of Human Predictions
In verses 24-28, Yeshayahu again leads with Hashem’s being the Redeemer, Who forms us from our moment of conception, Who made the heavens and earth. That opening can go in many directions; to understand each one, we have to know its context.
Here, verse 25 stresses that Hashem can foil the predictions of soothsayers and magicians, can ruin the thinking of the most wise and insightful. An example is Hashem’s telling Avraham to go and look at the stars when he worried that he would have no descendants. Chazali understood Hashem to be telling him that while Avraham had seen in the stars that he would never have children, Hashem could change that star such that he would have children.
Note that Chazal don’t say Hashem taught him that astrology is meaningless, they see Hashem telling Avraham that He isn’t bounded by it. We don’t have to believe in astrology for Chazal’s point to be relevant and helpful: Hashem can and does foil the predictions of any prognosticators (other than nevi’im), not because they aren’t wise or insightful, but because they’re not Hashem.
We dismiss astrology because we don’t see it as a valid way to predict the future, but blithely accept other predictions, because we think they do know the future. Hashem’s point is that they may have real wisdom, but it is never and can never be knowledge of the future.
Hashem Foiling Others’ Thoughts and Words
Nor is their wisdom and insight guaranteed. Gittin 56b tells of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai working his way out of Yerushalayim to see the Roman general (and then emperor) during the final siege before the city was destroyed. Twice in that conversation (look up the details), RYBZ responds to Vespasian in a way that Rav Yosef (or R. Akiva) finds unsatisfactory. To explain how someone as great as RYBZ could mishandle a situation, Rav Yosef (or R. Akiva—which makes it even more interesting, since R. Akiva later was supported Bar Kochba) invokes this verse, משיב חכמים אחור, that Hashem can turn back the wise.
We have to know the source of true knowledge and insight, and then hope that we are blessed to receive that knowledge/insight from Hashem.
Fulfilling Other’s Ideas
Verse 26 gives what might be the equally surprising flip side, that Hashem also fulfills the words of His servants and messengers. Rashi says this refers to Moshe, to the angel who told Ya’akov his name would be switched to Yisrael, and then also to the prophets who say Yerushalayim will be resettled.
It’s hard to know with Rashi, but he seems to imply that Hashem hadn’t planned to give Ya’akov that name change. Otherwise, it’s odd to trumpet it as a sign of Hashem fulfilling the words of His messengers—if Hashem means only that He will do that which He has sent messengers to do, that makes sense in terms of Moshe, who did remarkable feats, that no human could have done. But to say that the angel told Ya’akov his name would be changed, and Hashem fulfilled that, so what? How hard is that?
It seems to me there are two implications here, the less surprising one being that Hashem fulfills what He sent prophets to say. Which is only surprising to those who have lost hope in those wonders ever coming. But the example of the angel and Ya’akov seems to me to say that Hashem also sometimes fulfills words of His servants that He didn’t tell them ahead of time. Like in Iyov 22;28, ותגזר אומר ויקם לך, you will decree it and He will make it true.
The Mitzvah Aspect
Mostly, Yeshayahu’s ideas shape our approach to the world, but aren’t specifically halachic. When Hashem tells Avraham in Bereshit 17;1 to be תמים, whole, Ramban sees that as paralleling the later mitzvah of Devarim 18;13, תמים תהיה עם ה’, that we are required to have faith in Hashem. In Ramban’s reading, this is a Biblical commandment to trust that Hashem will shape our future, and we therefore do not need nor will consult with soothsayers or astrologers. Especially since, as our verse tells us, Hashem can turn back their predictions.
That gets more complicated in a time when the contemporary version of soothsayers claim they are only telling us what science, nature, or psychology have shown to be true. We do have an obligation to work with the ordinary course of nature in shaping our lives—so we do have an obligation, for example, to eat the best diet we can identify.
But Ramban reminds us that we have a mitzvah obligation not to let that step over a line, from building off of what the evidence of nature says, to assuming we can predict more than that. Because only Hashem can predict the future exactly, and even there, Hashem can change it. In comforting ways as well, which is the piece Yeshayahu was stressing here.