At the beginning of this week’s haftarah, the prophet promises that God’s “light” will come and darkness and despair will be dispersed. (See 60:1) The divine light will transform God’s people, rendering them pristine and pure, as expressed by the prophet in an iconic verse found at the end of this prophecy: “And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time. They are the shoot that I planted, the handiwork in which I glory.” (60:21) If this prophecy seems particularly optimistic about the human ability to be transformed, the previous chapter in Isaiah paints a very different picture. There, God despairs ever finding any human transformation and determines that if redemption is to occur, God Himself must act on his own: “He (God) saw that there was no man. He gazed long, but no one intervened, then His own arm won His triumph, His victorious right hand supported Him.” (59:16)
Rabbi Yohanan, the preeminent sage in Eretz Yisrael during the Talmudic period, used these two contrasting visions to express his own messianic expectations: “Rabbi Yohanan also said: The son of David (the mashiah) will come only in a generation which is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked: ‘In a generation that is altogether righteous’, as it is written: And your people, all of them are righteous, shall possess the land forever.’ (60:21) ‘Or altogether wicked,’ as it is written: ‘And He saw that there was no man. He gazed long and no one intervened’ (59:16)” (Sanhedrin 98a)
How could it be that the messiah (mashiah) should come when people are unworthy of redemption? Rabbi Yithak Abrabanel (15th century Portugal, Spain) claimed that the advent of the messiah is dependent on a fixed time. When that time arrives, the messiah will come without reference to the condition of the people. (Yeshuat Mishiho Part 1, 13) In contrast, Rabbi David Kimhe (12 century Provence) attempted to harmonize between Rabbi Yohanan’s two alternatives: “We see that the sages were confounded whether the people would be redeemed on account of repentance or not… The resolution of this question is that the majority of Israel will repent after they see the signs of the redemption, and this is the interpretation of the verse: ‘And He saw that there was no man – for no one repented before they saw the beginning of the redemption, that is why there were still sinners and rebels. (Kimhe on 59:16)
Kimhe’s interpretation makes an interesting and, perhaps, depressing assessment of human nature. Some of us are capable of “managing” our behavior without outside inspiration (coercion!?), but most of us (at least at times) need an outside “push” to inspire us when we need to change course. Here, Kimhe speaks of teshuvah as being “inspired” by redemption. During this season of teshuva, may it be sufficient that with the approach of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we feel moved to mend our relations both with God and with each other.