A Third of Comfort: The Lessons of Nine Chapters of Yeshayahu

This past Shabbat, I brought to a close this episode of my public encounters with Yeshayahu; after nine chapters in the later, more comforting part of Yeshayahu—a third of the 27 chapters in that section—I believe we have reached a convenient stopping point, with a worthy set of lessons to learn.

First we have chapter 48, and then we’ll recap the major points in these chapters.

The House of Jacob

48;1 addresses the people as the House of Ya’akov. Radak comments that this reminds us that Ya’akov should have been an example. Instead, as the rest of the verse notes, the Jews swear in Hashem’s Name, but not truthfully, don’t fulfill the commandments, don’t have proper awe of Hashem, and don’t worry about mentioning Hashem’s Name in false contexts.

The next verse points out more recent examples of how much the reliance on Hashem can help.  Rashi takes that as alluding to when Sancheriv surrounded the walls of Jerusalem (Radak has mentioned this episode several times as well, reminding us that this was a momentous episode for the Jews of that time.)

As Rashi puts it, Hizkiyahu’s reliance on Hashem avoided the exile towards which they were heading. I have noted this before, but I am not sure I’ve made the point as fully as Rashi and Radak do: In the time of Hizkiyahu, the Jews were supposed to be exiled (as the Northern Kingdom was) by Sancheriv. They weren’t, in the end, because Hizkiyahu relied on Hashem, the “magic” tool to merit redemption or salvation.

Stubborn Blindness

Despite that, in 48;4 Hashem notes how resistant we are. For Rashi, it’s to believing in miracles unless a prophet has predicted them ahead of time.  Radak says the Jews resist the message of the salvation from Sancheriv, despite having seen it ourselves.

Our role in our troubles—aside from specific sins—is emphasized again in verse eight, where Hashem announces the certainty of our rebelling. Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma’s reading that Hashem is pointing out that He redeemed us from Egypt, and elsewhere, despite knowing that we would turn against Him.  Radak reads the verse as commenting on there being rebellious ones in every generation of Jews.

Hashem Saving Us, For His Purposes

Radak thinks we deserve annihilation for our misdeeds, a position no one would accept today. In any case, Hashem says He won’t treat us as we deserve because we are identified in the world as Hashem’s people and, as Radak says, we create glory for Hashem when we stay devoted to Him (in the broadest sense), and when we, eventually, will repent and return to Him.

For that reason, Hashem punishes us by smelting, but not like silver; verse ten says we are smelted in the furnace of affliction. Chagigah 9b quotes Eliyahu as saying that it’s not affliction but poverty that the verse means, that poverty is best for the Jewish people. The Gemara doesn’t explain more, but I think it is suggesting that wealth, with all the goods it brings, it is also dangerous for Jews, who tend to use their wealth in arrogant or materialistic ways.

Radak takes the verse as contrasting the smelting of silver, which removes all the impurities (and would have left too few Jews alive) to how Hashem afflicts us, with illnesses or other troubles that affect us slowly enough not to destroy us. In our times, people refuse to believe that we as a people could deserve the troubles we’ve had, that Hashem’s administration of them is actually a kindness.  As a partial answer, I note that Rabbenu Yonah, Sha’arei Teshuvah III;2 says he has to point out how serious certain sins are, because people assume that some of the most serious sins are mere stringencies for the most pious.

One of his justifications for so doing is that the failure to treat our transgressions with the seriousness they deserve is itself a reason for Hashem to reject our attempts to return.

Rabbenu Yonah notes that in his time, let alone in ours, people treated some of the most serious sins as if they were only for the most pious people or were voluntary stringencies to take on at will. To be aware of that, it seems to me, is to see that we might be more deficient than we tend to allow ourselves to believe (and the point of recognizing that, let me stress, is to be guided in how to rectify, how to improve, how to return to Hashem and merit renewed bounty).

Guiding Us Where We Want to Go

Verse seventeen makes this point clearly. It notes that Hashem is מלמדך להועיל, teaches us what is best for us, מדריכך בדרך תלך, guides us on the path we should go.  But Makkot 10b has a statement either in the name of R. Huna or R. Elazar that verses in each of the three parts of Scripture say that Heaven helps us tread the path we choose.

That can be a blessing or a curse, depending on our choices, but it does make clear that we are not abandoned by God, left to our own devices. For all that we have been rebellious and resistant and have failed, in each generation, to act as we should, Hashem stays with us, for the sake of His Name, slowly wiping away our sins and leaving open the path for return and to wipe our pasts away.

There is more in the chapter, but those are the pieces that are most prominent, and that fit best with the narrative we have found so far. So let’s turn our attention to that narrative. I will ignore the original order, rearranging the ideas into a single coherent tale of what Hashem is telling us about how comfort can come.

Seeing Hashem Properly

As Radak noted in several places, including 45;18, Yeshayahu reiterates the reminder that Hashem is the Creator, with all the control over the universe and the very laws of Nature that that implies, because some in his time (and Radak’s time, and ours) denied that.

  1. Sa’adya Gaon in Emunot ve-De’ot 8 says this is necessary grounding for our believing the words of the prophets. In addition, accepting Hashem’s powers and uniqueness helps us reject alien worship equally vigorously. It is for that reason that 46;1 speaks in graphically derogatory terms about idols, a verse that leads R. Nachman, Megillah 25b, to assert that we are allowed (Rabbenu Bechaye, Devarim 7;26, thinks we are obligated) to mock alien worship, part of making clear to as many people as possible how misguided such beliefs are.

Hashem Can Bring Wonders, and Wants To

Once we are again aware of Hashem’s power, Yeshayahu reassures us that Hashem waits and wants to give us great bounty.  Based on 41;2, Shabbat 156a imagines Avraham telling Hashem he has seen in the stars that he will be childless.  In response, Hashem moves the offending star from where it foretold childlessness to another place, where it allows for children.

What I find important about that passage is that it doesn’t portray Hashem as denying Avraham’s claim, it says Hashem can change the facts that led to it. We don’t have to accept or believe in astrology to hear the underlying message—however we think we can see the future, however accurate our predictive models are (since Avraham’s was as well, in the Gemara’s reading), Hashem can change them.

The Redemption

We saw a few small pieces of what the redemption would look like, although that wasn’t the major focus of these chapters. 40;3 spoke of a voice calling out in the desert, to clear a path for Hashem. Rashi commented that it is the way of Jerusalem to return its exiles to its midst, a poetic image that, until two or three generations ago, was no more than that, but that we have merited seeing (perhaps only the first steps of that return!).

Malbim assumes that when a prophetic verse repeats a phrase in different words, it adds a new meaning. In this case, he reads the verse as saying that the wonders of the Exodus from Egypt will return, as will all new miracles, a never before seen path to redemption.

In that same chapter, verse eleven, Yeshayahu referred to Hashem as a shepherd, gathering the weak and suckling lambs up and carrying them where they needed to go. Radak thinks the metaphor foretells a redemption in which Hashem leads each of us out of exile at the pace we can tolerate.

All of this well unfold so remarkably, 43;18 tells us, that we won’t even remember the earlier redemptions. As Rashi says, we’ll no longer focus on Egypt because we’ll be too busy celebrating and thanking Hashem for the new redemption.

Redeemers Past and Future

The first verses of chapter 42 speak a bit of how the man who will serve as Hashem’s messenger for all this will look.  Rashi reads the verse as saying that other nations will seek his advice, come to him to be educated as to how they should act, that he will sway them without needing to reach for coercion or even admonition. Radak extends that to saying that those other nations will accept his services as arbitrator of their disputes, will allow him to bring peace among them.

An example of someone who came close to this model is Koresh, described in chapter 45 as one king who understood his obligation to bring the Jews back to their land and have them rebuild the Temple. Radak thinks Koresh came to realize this by looking at the fates of the kings who had come before him, implying that the truths of Hashem’s power and rule are not so esoteric that non-Jews can’t find their way to it.

Koresh reminds us that Yeshayahu’s vision of redemption does not negate a role for non-Jews. Recognizing that Hashem wants the Jewish people returned to Israel and a rebuilt Temple in no way impinges on Koresh’s rights as the ruler of the world. Similarly, 45;18 speaks of the fact that Hashem did not create the world to be uninhabited. Torat haMinchah 58;4 saw the refusal to spread out over the world as being the sin of the generation of the Tower of Babel.

Yeshayahu’s model is a world that is inhabited, as much of it as possible. At the same time, the Jews have their (small) land, where they can do their job, serving Hashem and serving as Hashem’s representatives, bearers of His messages, a “light to the nations,” as 42;6 puts it.

The Jews as the Fly in the Ointment

What prevents all this from unfolding is…us. 42;18 calls on the deaf to hear and the blind to see. Radak thinks we are being told that we tell the prophets they are deaf and blind, when we should be listening to their remonstrations, acknowledging the flaws they point out, adjusting our conduct accordingly.

Instead, we fight with our Creator, as 45;9 notes. Emunot ve-Deot 6 takes it as pointing out the self-defeating nature of complaining about Creation, instead of seeing it as it is, finding the best and most productive ways to act within the world Hashem created. For Rabbenu Yonah, that is also captured by 45;25, בה’ יצדקו, they will become more righteous “in” Hashem, which he takes to refer to the fact that many of the best character traits are also specific commandments. Serving Hashem makes us better, if we let it.

Powerful Hearts

To let it, though, we have to be open to it.  The challenge of seeing Hashem properly, responding appropriately, underlies both sides of a debate about the meaning of 46;12, which refers to אבירי לב, the mighty of heart.

Amoraim, Rav and Shmuel or perhaps R. Yochanan and R. Elazar felt the term refers to those whose merits are so great they either have the right to demand sustenance from Hashem (as opposed to the rest of us, who live off Hashem’s charity), or is so great that the entire rest of the world is sustained in their merit (while they subsist minimally).

The reverse possibility is R. Yehudah’s, that the phrase refers to those who have seen enough that they should have understood the truth of Judaism and converted to it. R. Yehudah’s example is people of Bavel, who see great Torah scholars; R. Ashi adds the people of Mata Mechasya, who see great Torah gatherings twice a year. Witnessing Jews’ dedication to Torah study, and those who excel at it, should bring people to accepting the truth of Torah. They don’t because of their mighty hearts, in the negative sense that they can resist what they had to have known at some level.

A Redemption Close and Far

These chapters only hint at the wonders of the redemption, horizons of wonder we can only imagine by moving on to the later chapters of the book (as I hope to at some point). They focus more intensively and extensively on what we would need to do to see those wonders, come to accept Hashem properly, accept the messages Hashem sends us through His prophets, to adjust our actions accordingly. We can, and have been, blind and deaf to Hashem’s messages, exercising our mighty hearts to ignore what’s in front of us.

At any time, though, we can take those messages to heart, serve as witnesses to Hashem’s truths, and then be taken, each at our own pace, to a world we have never seen before.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.