Haftorah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
The haftorah of parashat Ekev creates a conversation and series of reflections between God, Jerusalem and the Jewish people. These are speeches of the prophet Isaiah who lived during the Babylonian exile, and who now anticipates the return to the land of Israel supported by King Cyrus of the Persian Empire. Isaiah first personifies Jerusalem, Zion, as an abandoned child, and God as her birth-mother:
Zion says, “God has forsaken me, My Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her baby, Or disown the child of her womb? Though she might forget, I never could forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands, your walls are ever before Me. (49:14-16)
Immediately, Isaiah expands imagery and personifies Jerusalem herself as a grown woman and mother, wondering where her children have gone. A family tree has emerged, in which God is the matriarchal ancestor, consoling her child and promising that the grandchildren will return:
Swiftly your children are coming; those who ravaged and ruined you shall leave you. Look up all around you and see: They are all assembled, coming to you! As I live…You shall wear them all like jewels, deck yourself with them like a bride. As for your ruins and desolate places and your land laid waste— you shall soon be crowded with inhabitants, while destroyers stay far from you. The children you thought you had lost shall yet say in earshot, “The place is too crowded for me; make room for me to settle.” (49:17-20)
With these images, Isaiah repairs the brokenness of Lamentations where Jerusalem was an abandoned widow, lamenting the death of her children. One imagines God wrapping Her arms around Her terrified and bereft daughter, Jerusalem, comforting her that her children will yet return in great numbers, with strength and vitality. One can easily imagine an embrace that wipes away tears of hopelessness, healing a broken heart. This language reinforces the theme of repairing broken relationships that characterizes this season. In the Torah’s narrative, Moses has returned to Mt. Sinai to fashion a second set of luchot, culminating in the return on Yom Kippur. Isaiah’s imagery transforms historical tragedy into a lived experience of relational healing, hope and repair. In a universal sense, if our people can become alienated from our divine Parent through sinful misbehavior, suffering exile at the hands of inhuman cruelty, and then return to our land with renewed trust and life, then there is redemptive hope for all nations to look inward and seek pathways for a spiritual and physical return. Such a return is relational, requiring a commitment to God’s expectations for an ethical, compassionate humanity.
Isaiah then shifts his metaphorical language to address the question of power, always central in relationships. Continuing to personify Jerusalem as the bereaved mother, God anticipates her bewilderment and clarifies that it is God’s will that human beings feel dignity and security in their lives. God employs the imagery of power, speaking of banners, flags, nations, kings and queens. The authentic responsibility of human beings with power is ultimately to care for others. Kings and queens do not lose their power by carrying the vulnerable or nursing the young. Their power is enhanced by serving God’s will for all human beings–that those with power should support, nurture, protect and carry those without. When nations start acting on this imperative as a matter of their own self-understanding, an awareness of God’s presence in the world will become manifest.
And you will say to yourself, “Who bore these for me When I was bereaved and barren, Exiled and disdained— By whom, then, were these reared? I was left all alone— And where have these been?” “I will raise My hand to nations and lift up My banner to peoples;…they shall bring your sons in their bosoms and carry your daughters on their backs. Kings shall tend your children, Their queens shall serve you as nannies. They shall bow to you, face to the ground, and lick the dust of your feet. And you shall know that I am the LORD— Those who trust in Me shall not be shamed.” (49:21-23)
Framed in terms of political power, Isaiah imagines an end to the abuse of power and a world of sustained goodness. The loving relationship between mother and child, between God and Israel, provides a metaphor that re-imagines that power in relational terms. The kabbalistic tradition understands this language of power as a matter of complete interiority, with cosmic implications. Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, in his work, Sha’arei Orah, “Gates of Light,” 13th century Spain, explained the metaphor of kings and queens bowing and licking the dust at the feet of Israel. Writing from within the kabbalistic tradition, R Gikatilla wrote that the sinful misbehavior of the Jewish people, caused exile and dispersion and fragmented the manifestation of God’s name throughout the world. That process empowered the nations of the world, but their power was used abusively as God’s name was itself exiled, fragmented, and encrusted in external manifestations of cruelty and power (klippot). His language is profoundly metaphoric. The behaviors of the Jewish people alienated God’s presence in the world. Once Israel and God return to each other through a process of repentance, Israel will return to the land and will one again become the source of blessing and well-being to all the nations of the earth. That, according to R Gikatilla, is the purpose of the Jewish people: to become the source of sustenance and blessing for the nations of the earth. His language identifies Israel as the master over the nations, providing parnasa, sustenance, for them. Nevertheless, as a metaphor for humanity, Israel’s redemption is bound to the well-being of humanity, filling the world with an awareness of God’s name and providing goodness and dignity to every nation in their home. (I provide this segment in the original below.*)
Isaiah also used the imagery of abusive power and cruelty metaphorically to convey the permanence of the loving relationship between God and Israel, between mother and child. Human, physical power becomes abusive, but those who were in power yesterday will become servants tomorrow:
Can spoil be taken from a warrior, or captives retrieved from a victor?…Captives shall be taken from a warrior and spoil shall be retrieved from a tyrant; for I will contend with your adversaries, and I will deliver your children. I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. And all mankind shall know that I the LORD am your Savior, the Mighty One of Jacob, your Redeemer….Where is the bill of divorce of your mother whom I dismissed? And which of My creditors was it to whom I sold you off? You were only sold off for your sins, And your mother dismissed for your crimes. (49:24-50:1)
Isaiah shifts his language once again, this time describing Israel as a spouse. Unlike the ten northern tribes whom Jeremiah described as divorced from God, their spouse (Jeremiah 3:8), this marriage will never end. The consequences of God’s anger were harsh, but underneath the rage and disappointment remained deep and lasting love which is also a source of hope for the future. Interestingly, God wonders what takes so long! God seems not to understand human nature, that when a parent becomes estranged from her child, or a spouse from his partner, the fear and hurt penetrate deeply, and healing takes time: Is My arm too short to rescue [my children from exile?] (50:2) Slowly, the relationship heals, the pain ameliorates: The Lord GOD opened my ears, And I did not disobey, I did not run away. (50:5) Isaiah also states that each nation will have to suffer the consequences of their own misbehaviors, implying their own relationships with the Creator according to the terms of their own sacred history: …you are all kindlers of fire, Girding on firebrands. Walk by the blaze of your fire, By the brands that you have lit! This has come to you from My hand: You shall lie down in pain. (50:11)
Isaiah’s message is deeply relational. God as birth-mother, as grandmother, as ancestral matriarch, as spouse. God as having expectations of Israel and every other nation amongst the nations of the earth. God as the mystical source of blessing, demanding and dependant upon humanity’s willingness, in trust and good faith, to acknowledge God’s presence in the world. In this cosmic world view, Isaiah’s language provides hope for a future of security and sustained well-being. It is a message of love in which anger, disappointment and alienation are temporary states while love remains as the permanent, reliable foundation of human life no matter how much humanity wields power abusively. These sentiments capture Isaiah’s final words precisely of the haftorah:
Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, you who seek God: Look to the rock you were hewn from, to the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Avraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. Truly the LORD has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins; God has made her wilderness like Eden, Her desert like the Garden of the LORD. Gladness and joy shall abide there, Thanksgiving and the sound of music. (51:1-3)
We can start again. There is hope for constant renewal. Our relationship with God starts with justice, with tzedek. Remember: that is why I fell in love with Avraham and Sarah, God says through Isaiah. Remember? Remember your ancestor’s commitment to justice? Just reopen your heart, re-feel that sentiment, work towards justice in good faith, with confidence and trust that this is what God wants for humanity, and the shefa, abundance, of blessings will flow towards humanity once again. It starts with Israel, with the Jewish people, and will then nourish the earth.
* וְהָיוּ מְלָכִים אֹמְנַיִךְ וְשָׂרוֹתֵיהֶם מִנִּקּוֹתֶיךָ אַפַּיִם אֶרֶץ יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לָךְ וַעֲפַר רַגְלַיִךְ יְלַחֵכוּ (יְשַׁעְיָהוּ מט, כג). וּמַהוּ ‘עָפָר רַגְלֶיךָ יִלְחֲכוּ’? סוֹד מִסּוֹדוֹת הָאֱמוּנָה הוּא. דַּע כִּי כָּל הַבְּרָכָה הָיְתָה בָּאָה תְּחִלָּה מֵאֵת יהו”ה יִתְבָּרֵךְ אֶל כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּמִכְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיְתָה בָּאָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל יְדֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיוּ מִתְבָּרְכִין וּמִתְפַּרְנְסִין כָּל ע’ הָאֻמּוֹת עוֹבְדֵי גִּלּוּלִים לְמַטָּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְנִבְרְכוּ בְּךָ כָּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה (בְּרֵאשִׁית יב, ג). וּכְשֶׁחָטְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל נִשְׁתַּבְּרוּ הַצִּנּוֹרוֹת וְיִרְשׁוּ אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם הַבְּרָכָה שֶׁהָיְתָה בָּאָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאוֹתוֹ הַשֶּׁפַע הַנִּמְשָׁךְ מֵאוֹתָן הַצִּנּוֹרוֹת, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר: תַּחַת עֶבֶד כִּי יִמְלוֹךְ (מִשֶּׁלִּי ל, כב), לְפִי שֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ אוֹתָן הַקְּלִפּוֹת הַקָּשׁוֹת בֵּין הַשֵּׁם וּבֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל. אֲבָל בְּשׁוּב ה’ אֶת שְׁבוּת צִיּוֹן וְיִתְיַחֲדוּ הַשֵּׁם וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיֻסְּרוּ כָּל הָאֶמְצָעִיִּים מִבֵּינֵיהֶם, אָז לֹא יְקַבֵּל אֶחָד מִכָּל שָׂרֵי הָאֻמּוֹת לֹא שֶׁפַע וְלֹא בְּרָכָה וְלֹא טוֹבָה זוּלָתִי עַל יְדֵי כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהִיא מִתְגַּבֶּרֶת עַל כֻּלָּן וּמוֹשֶׁלֶת עַל כֻּלָּם וְהִיא נוֹתֶנֶת לָהֶם פַּרְנָסָה. וְכָל הַשָּׂרִים וְהָעוֹבְדֵי גִּלּוּלִים תִּהְיֶה פַּרְנָסָתָם בְּאוֹתוֹ הַנְּעָאָר בְּסוֹף כָּל הַמַּדְרֵגוֹת הָאַחֲרוֹנוֹת מִתַּמְצִית כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְזֶהוּ סוֹד ‘וְעָפָר רַגְלֶיךָ יִלְחֲכוּ’. וְאָז יִהְיוּ כָּל הַשָּׂרִים מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל וְכֻלָּם יְקַבְּלוּ פַּרְנָסָה עַל יְדֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְזֶהוּ סוֹד….Sha’arei Orah, Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla