Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

Are There Freebies in Life? (Isaiah 51:12-52:12)

Sometimes the debate over an obscure verse can yield interesting and thought-provoking religious ideas worthy of note. The beginning of chapter 52 of Isaiah challenges Jerusalem to awaken and ready itself for the upcoming redemption. This passage contains the following unclear verse: “For thus said the Lord: ‘You were sold for no price, and shall be redeemed without money.’” (52:3)

Amos Hacham suggests that this verse might be an answer to those who doubt the efficacy of Isaiah’s command to the captives in the previous verse: “Loose the bonds from your neck, O captive one, Fair Zion!” (52:2) The verse would then have been meant to allay the fears of a nation which thought itself sold into slavery but did not think that it could afford the price of its freedom. (Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 561; Similarly, see Ibn Ezra.)

Rashi interpreted this verse differently: “’You were sold for worthless acts’ – this refers to the evil inclination that does not bring you reward; ‘and you will be redeemed not for money’ but on account of repentance.” This interpretation is very “rabbinic” but certainly is not the plain sense of the verse. It asserts that any punishment incurred was on account of wrongdoing inspired by one’s evil inclination. Redemption comes at a price, just not a monetary price. In order to be redeemed one must repent one’s wrong doings.

When one looks for a source for Rashi’s ideas, we find that that he has taken sides in a very interesting debate found in the Talmud: “Rabbi Eliezer said: if Israel repent, they will be redeemed, as it is written: ‘Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings.’ (Jeremiah 3:22) Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: But is it not written (in the verse from our haftarah): ‘For thus said the Lord: ‘You were sold for no price, and shall be redeemed without money?’  You have sold yourselves for something without value, [namely] for idolatry; and you shall be redeemed without money — without repentance and good deeds…. [At the end of this debate,] Rabbi Eliezer remained silent.” (abridged from Sanhedrin 97b-98a)

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, two sages from the period of the Mishnah (Tannaim), argued here over whether redemption requires repentance or whether it is exclusively an act of Divine grace. In the Talmudic argument, Rabbi Yehoshua, who argued that redemption was an act of grace, wins out. Contrary to the outcome in this debate, though, Rashi sides with Rabbi Eliezer who requires repentance. Why? I can only imagine that while Rabbi Yehoshua’s opinion sounds very attractive, namely, that redemption is a free gift from God, it did not capture the spirit of the Jewish tradition which requires personal and national responsibility.

As we enter the month of Elul, when we begin to prepare for the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rashi’s point of view becomes crucial. We Jews recognize that responsibility rests on our shoulders. God’s grace is fine, but there are no free rides. We must do our part as well.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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