Koresh figures centrally in the first verses of chapter 45, inviting us to consider what it means to be a good non-Jew, to obey Hashem’s commands, to foster the world Hashem wants. Along the way, we’ll also seem some thoughts about the kinds of questions it is appropriate to ask of Hashem, and where all of human history is leading. Let’s take them one by one.
In verse 1, Hashem has a message for Koresh משיחו, his mashiach, a word commentators interpret in various ways. Rashi says it signifies any position of greatness, just as Bamidbar 18;8 refers to the gifts given to priests as למשחה בהם, to be made exalted by them. For Radak, it’s a matter of being appointed; Hashem has appointed Koresh for various tasks, especially ending the Babylonian exile and calling for the Jews to go back to Israel.
Ramban takes the word most literally, referring to anointing. On Shmot 29;29, he even suggests that someone in Koresh’s time (Yeshayahu was hundreds of years earlier) sent or took oil to Persia, to anoint him.
Aside from what it says about Koresh, it opens a window on what we mean by Mashiach, whose arrival we await: Is it just that he’s in a position of greatness, that he was appointed to his position (giving us the comfort of knowing we have the right person in the job), or that he will have been specifically anointed for the throne he will occupy?
Koresh: Inferring God
The next verses speak of the victories Hashem will give Koresh, the ways in which He will ease Koresh’s path to victory and give him riches, all so that Koresh will know Hashem is doing this, on behalf of the Jewish people, to have him let them go back to Israel.
Radak understands that Koresh’s victories will be so extraordinary he himself will see that it cannot have been his own strength or strategy that produced it. In Radak’s view, Koresh saw the downfall of earlier mighty kings who had given themselves the credit for their victories, and correctly inferred that it was Hashem. As a result, both in the beginning of Ezra and at the very end of II Divrei haYamim, Koresh announces the Jews’ right of return with the explicit recognition that Hashem had given him the nations of the earth.
Far is Not the Same as All the Way
Rashi does not disagree, but thinks the end of verse four blames Koresh for not going far enough. The verse says אכנך ולא ידעתני, I called you by name and you didn’t know Me. Radak thinks it means Hashem had already singled out Koresh before he was old or wise enough to know Hashem (especially since Yeshayahu lived 200 years earlier).
Rashi sees it as an anticipatory rebuke. In these verses, Hashem commanded the future Koresh to take the people out of exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Rashi thinks Koresh was supposed to be involved himself (I don’t think he means going to Jerusalem and laying stones, but more than just publishing one decree and expecting the Jews to do all the rest). While Radak offers us a Koresh rare in his readiness to see Hashem’s hand in events, Rashi reminds us we can do a great deed and still miss essential parts, like direct involvement in the rebuilding of the city.
Hashem and the Value of Peace
In verses 5-7, Yeshayahu tells us why Hashem is doing this—to make clear that Hashem is the sole Power running the universe, and is trying to get the world to recognize that. I think it is too little noticed that much of Tanach, and of human history since, has been aimed at bringing the world to a basic recognition of and submission to Hashem, which is the first step in the task of humanity. Only once we get there can we move to what Hashem really wanted when creating us, a world perfected in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But we have to take step one first.
Verse seven says Hashem is יוצר אור ובורא חשך עשה שלום ובורא רע, forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil (or ill). We should note the lesson in the verse’s contrasting שלום, peace, to רע, bad, not מלחמה, war. In addition, this half of the verse parallels the first half, the creation of light and dark. In Sifrei Naso 42, R. Chanina Sgan haKohanim says it shows that peace is equated to all creation (he is taking the reference to the making of light as the first step of Creation, as it is in the beginning of the Torah).
Radak, too, says the verse is telling us that the loss of peace is bad. In writing that, I worry that that can lead us to think we need to achieve peace at all costs, mistakenly defining peace as the lack of hostilities. To avoid that, we should recall that Hashem commands us to sometimes wage war, such as against Amalek, whether biological or ideological. שלום isn’t lack of hostilities, it’s where the world runs as it should, smoothly and without friction. But the existence of evil means the world can’t or shouldn’t be smooth or frictionless; ignoring evil in the name of “peace” threatens to make it worse.
War is always bad, in the sense that it shows that we don’t have peace, and haven’t found nonviolent ways to get to peace. But it’s also sometimes necessary. Hashem created light and peace, and we do all we can to foster those. But not by turning a blind eye to where there’s darkness or ill.
Challenging Hashem Instead of Accepting the Truth
Verses 9-10 bemoan those who fight with their Creator, likening it to a piece of clay telling the potter how to do his job. Radak takes it in the more apparent direction (in a moment, we’ll see Rashi, who takes it in what I find a more thought-provoking direction), that it refers to the king of Bavel, who took full credit for his achievements, using the vessels of the Beit haMikdash for his parties, as if to say to Hashem, “what are you going to do?”
The answer was Koresh.
That reading doesn’t quite fit the verses, which portray someone directing complaints at Hashem, not challenges to Hashem’s power. Perhaps because of that, Rashi takes the verses as a reference to Habakkuk 1, where the prophet complains about evildoers’ continuing success.
That reading raises the question (although Rashi doesn’t) of when prophets (and others) are within their rights to challenge Hashem. Rashi seems to see Yeshayahu as calling out Habakkuk for going too far.
- Saadya Gaon, Emunot ve-De’ot 6, offers a reading more similar to Rashi’s than Radak’s, but also more relevant to our nonprophetic lives. He says wisdom involves finding the truth as it is, not trying to twist it to our own purposes. (He speaks of those who want to insist matters follow their appetites, what they covet and desire).
Immutable But Unprovable Truths
Part of the belief in God is recognizing truths we have to accept, whether or not they appeal to us on first inspection. Our modern awareness of different points of view repeatedly leads some of us to think there is always another way of looking at it (I worked to deny this in the first part of my We’re Missing the Point; I don’t think I succeeded at convincing anyone who didn’t already agree). Part of that contemporary condition is to believe that we choose what to believe about the world, and any choice we make is reasonable.
What R. Saadya reminded us, over a thousand years ago, was that that’s not true for those cases where we go against the actual truth. I just recently pointed out to someone that the question of whether Hashem exists is a yes/no proposition, with only one true answer (I was on the side of yes). He—and many others with whom I’ve had this conversation—felt that since there aren’t absolute proofs on either side, it’s reasonable to come down on either side.
The problem is that not all truths are amenable to proof in the modern sense of the word (since so many of us have rejected the tradition of the experience of Matan Torah as proving anything, and will note the remarkable century and a half we’ve seen in Israel, but not accept that as proof of Hashem). That doesn’t make those truths less true. Smoking caused disease and death long before anyone could prove it; eating moderately and healthfully was a path to good health long before anyone demonstrated it.
We want to impose ourselves on the truth, and Yeshayahu is reminding us of the futility of that. What we can and should do is learn the truth as it is, and find our place within that truth, as Koresh did.
Where We’re Open or Closed to Guidance
Rashi sees that as the meaning of verse eleven, where Hashem says “you ask me for signs, but command me about my children and the work of my hands.” For Rashi (Radak reads it in ways we’ve seen before, so I don’t feel the need to repeat it), Hashem is pointing out that people are happy to ask about the signs and wonders on a cosmic scale, and are willing to hear what the prophets say about that, but are certain they know how to handle the Jewish people, and what should happen with them.
We’ll take guidance from Hashem, I read Rashi as implying, on big issues, which don’t affect us directly. We might ask a functioning prophet whether to deem Pluto a planet, whether global warming is man-made, or other big issues we can’t impact (without a worldwide effort).
But we wouldn’t—and this is Hashem’s complaint, according to Rashi—take that prophet’s word about how Hashem is handling the Jewish people. There, we’d say we knew what should be happening and would try to command Hashem what to do.
A Hidden God, Eventually Revealed
Verse 15-17 say that indeed Hashem is a God Who hides, the savior of the Jewish people, and that those who deny that will be embarrassed and humiliated when the Jews are permanently saved. For Rashi, the backstory (based on verse fourteen) was that Sancheriv’s generals brought Egyptian and other captives to the walls of Jerusalem. When the Assyrian army was suddenly and shockingly destroyed, those captives freed, they converted, and articulated their recognition that Hashem hides, as it were, leaving us room to see or not see Him.
Radak adds that the identification of Hashem as the God of the Jewish people also tells us that it is in Jewish history that we can find Hashem, even in His hiddenness, as it were. For Radak, a clear-eyed view of what happens to the Jewish people reveals Hashem’s existence. The challenge is being clear-eyed, which is why Hashem remains hidden.
A prime example of how we can find Hashem even where it is not clear is Koresh, who conquered the known world and yet was able to attribute his victories to Hashem, able to see that he did not do all that himself, and to react appropriately (to his lasting credit).
We can hope to do the same.