Haftorah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5
One way of reading the hatorah of parashat R’eah is around the organization of three sets of metaphors: building materials, tools, and food. The engineering images describe structure, stability, security and safety. They also establish the interplay between God’s power and humanity’s capacity for both construction and demolition. The food imagery turns the preceding images inwards. True nourishment consoles after destruction and exile. Once physical well-being is secured, true nourishment is a matter of consciousness and interiority, not of commercial gain.
Isaiah opens by describing the emotional condition of the Jewish people. The people are anxious, turbulent, filled with angst and fear. They remain deeply unsettled: Unhappy, storm-tossed one, uncomforted! (54:11) God then describes rebuilding. Interestingly, God is not describing the rebuilding of the Mikdash. Instead, a picture of a palace emerges, suggesting societal security in general. Isaiah describes the foundation and floor, the walls, and then windows:
I will lay carbuncles as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, Your gates of precious stones, the whole encircling wall of gems. And all your children shall be disciples of the LORD, and great shall be the happiness of your children; you shall be established through righteousness. You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear; from ruin, and it shall not come near you. (54:11-14)
Commentators are uncertain about which stones are being named. What is clear, however, is that these building materials have intrinsic qualities that enhance their strength. Rashi clarified that “foundations” are the floors. Abrabanel expanded this explanation. He wrote:
Your consolation and stability will become so great, your healing so complete, that even the foundations of your buildings will reflect your settled condition. Your windows (lit. “battlements”) will not be made of stained glass which is translucent. Your windows shall be made of the most pure, clear glass, allowing the sunshine to penetrate. The same for your gates. Your gates will be made of iridescent stones that will shine iridescent light. (54:11-13)
It is fascinating that Isaiah immediately describes inner stability, the stability that comes from trusting God’s goodness and the blessing of life. The exterior stability of society, represented by a sound design and strong materials, depends not on the extrinsic strength of the buildings, but upon the intrinsic quality of the soul. As the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809 – September 18, 1879, Volhynia, explained:
The people will become disciples of the Creator, receiving teachings of trust such that all internecine disputes will cease. Nevertheless, Isaiah notes that despite this renewed stability, two more enemies [of your well-being] remain. These are [forces of externality]: extortion motivated by avarice, and enemies that attack “nefashot.” (54:11-14)
When the Malbim employs the phrase, “enemies that attack nefashot,” he was able to describe external, physical sources of instability, and spiritual agitation simultaneously. By doing so, the Malbim emphasizes that when Isaiah describes physical buildings, he is simultaneously speaking about the alignment between our external and internal worlds. True stability is internal.
The Malbim continued to develop the theme of interiority in his explanation of the Isaiah’s statement that you shall be established through righteousness. You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear; from ruin, and it shall not come near you. The real building material is tzedakah:
The [re]building of society [and of the condition of the people] will become complete [not through physical materials] but with acts of righteousness between people and The Omnipresent. [In other words, you will fill the world with acts of righteousness with other people] by distancing yourselves from acts of extortions and oppression (lit. “‘osheq”). Do not be overly concerned with money. Additionally, distance yourself from destructiveness (lit. המחתה, hamchatah) because that attacks your soul.
These is such a powerful explanation. I read these words of the Malbim to mean that true comfort and stability, and deep healing, come from letting go of an attachment to the external world as the only reality. Instead, realigning our consciousness so that the highest value is faith in the goodness of creation to nourish and sustain the world consoles and heals. If righteousness lays the true foundation of life, then humanity will be able to distance themselves from the hatreds, avarice and mendacity that drives so much oppression and violence. Destruction, war, and violence brutalize human beings.
Isaiah develops just this point. “God is the source of all human creativity. The same creativity that fashions tools for construction also designs and manufactures weapons of destruction–but with heightened consciousness, I promise you that mass destruction need not reoccur.” Isaiah sends a profoundly optimistic message: humanity is capable of fulfilling God’s hope for the world:
It is I who created the smith to fan the charcoal fire and produce the tools for his work; So it is I who create the instruments of havoc. No weapon formed against you shall succeed, and every tongue that contends with you at law you shall defeat. Such is the lot of the servants of the LORD, such their triumph through Me —declares the LORD. (54:15-16)
Isaiah’s speech forecasts the possibility of a true stability in the world that depends upon inner commitment to a balanced, righteous, supportive humanity. We are capable to continuing to fashion weapons, but maintaining our faith and belief in a hope for the world with withstand all future acts of aggression. The ancient rabbis explicate these verses precisely in terms of architectural symbolism as a metaphor for healing. Building the Mishkan serves as an image of physical and spiritual healing:
“Here, I have created the smith;” this refers to the master architect, Betzalel. “…the one who uses the bellows to create coal,” this refers to the sin of Israel with fire, as the Torah says, “…they hurled the gold into the fire and out came this golden calf. Betzalel arrived to heal the illness/wound. This is understood through the following parable: There was once a medical student who learned from a master physician. Once, the student applied a salve and bandage to a wound, and the wound healed. Everyone applauded the young doctor. The master physician turned to the crowd and declared: “You should recognize that I taught this student!” This applies to Betzalel when he constructed the Mishkan. The Holy One declared, “I am the One who created and taught the smith!” (Shemot Rabbah 48:5)
With a deeper consciousness of how the world can be nourished and sustained, Israel has the potential to inspire the rest of humanity. Physical nourishment supports life, but the body requires integration with the heart and the soul. When humanity sees that the Jewish people internalize this message, “They shall come running to you.” (55:5) This is not food one purchases with money, nor drink of commercial value:
Why do you spend money for what is not bread, your earnings for what does not satisfy? Give heed to Me, and you shall eat choice food nd enjoy the richest viands. Incline your ear and come to Me; hearken, and you shall be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant, the enduring loyalty promised to David. (55:2-3)
Humanity needs a sense of the sacred. Once humanity reveres sanctity, teachings of what is sacred and holy, life will be comforted and nourished and sustained. In kabbalistic terms, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, (1710–1784), the famed disciple f the Ba’al Shem Tov, wrote the following of Isaiah’s message:
Isaiah was speaking the righteous tzaddikim when he said, “All who are thirsty, come and drink.” Your soul will gain respite by hearing the teachings of Torah, [for these are the words of sacred and of righteousness.]…As I have written elsewhere (Avodah Zara 3b; Nedarim 8b) the righteousness are healed by l[internalizing the words of the Creator] whereas others remained alienated [from the source of life.] (Ketonet Passim, Kedoshim 67)
May we merit the discipline and faith to build lives from the perspective of righteousness, nourished by the faith and hope for a shared vision to sustain and nourish humanity.