Parashat Ki Tavo
Haftorah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Humanity can radiate righteousness
Isaiah framed his message of consolation for parashat Ki Tavo with the imagery of sunlight. He opens and closes this speech with images of light. His message opens with a call to the dawn, heralding a new day filled with light:
Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the LORD has shone upon you! Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you the LORD will shine, and God’s Presence be seen over you. (60:1-2)
Although the world will be covered in darkness, light will start to shine over the Jewish people. Isaiah has done something powerful in his opening. Despite this discrepancy between Israel and the nations, he has simultaneously introduced universality while starting to explicate the expectations of the Jewish people in their particularity. All peoples have their own identities, their own land, culture, and particular destinies. Simultaneously, however, there is a relational foundation connecting all humanity, and when there is darkness in one place, light must emerge from another. Isaiah intensifies the balance and tension between Israel and the nations, continuing with the interplay between light and darkness:
And nations shall walk by your light, Kings, by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about: they have all gathered and come to you. Your sons shall be brought from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders. As you behold, you will glow; your heart will throb and thrill— For the wealth of the sea shall pass on to you, The riches of nations shall flow to you. (60:3-5)
Israel will become the source of light, a beacon, projecting light throughout the world. “Raise your eyes and see” is the same phrase describing Avraham raising his eyes and seeing the ram caught in the thicket of the akedah. If the akedah teaches us that sacrifice, a giving up part of yourself, a willingness to “let go” in order to give of yourself, ultimately nourishes others and brings joy, then Isaiah is alluding to that spiritual truth here. If the Jewish people are able to “lift their eyes and see themselves as a source of light, giving to the world,” then humanity will joyfully, willingly, lovingly come.
The body of Isaiah’s speech describes, explicitly and concretely, the abundance of blessings that will emerge in response to the light. In the wake of catastrophe will come an abundance of raw materials for rebuilding. The material will come from many different nations. It will include raw materials, precious metals, and human resources for reconstruction. Where the walls were breached, new scaffolding will reinforce the foundations. In Isaiah’s words:
Dust clouds of camels shall cover you, Dromedaries of Midian and Ephah. They all shall come from Sheba; They shall bear gold and frankincense, And shall herald the glories of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be assembled for you, The rams of Nebaioth shall serve your needs; They shall be welcome offerings on My altar, And I will add glory to My glorious House. Who are these that float like a cloud, like doves to their cotes? Behold, the coastlands await me, with ships of Tarshish in the lead, to bring your sons from afar, and their silver and gold as well— for the name of the LORD your God, for the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you. Foreigners shall rebuild your walls, their kings shall wait upon you— for in anger I struck you down, but in favor I take you back. Your gates shall always stay open— day and night they shall never be shut— to let in the wealth of the nations, with their kings in procession. For the nation or the kingdom that does not serve you shall perish; such nations shall be destroyed. The majesty of Lebanon shall come to you— cypress and pine and box— to adorn the site of My Sanctuary, to glorify the place where My feet rest. Bowing before you, shall come the children of those who tormented you; prostrate at the soles of your feet shall be all those who reviled you; and you shall be called “City of the LORD, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” Whereas you have been forsaken, rejected, with none passing through, I will make you a pride everlasting, a joy for age after age. (60:6-15)
Ibn Ezra and Malbim read the plain sense of these verses describing that the nations of the world will pay tribute to the Jewish people. They will become subservient and literally in riches and wealth. Verse 16 reads, For the nation or the kingdom that does not serve you shall perish; such nations shall be destroyed. The verb “shall be destroyed” literally reads, “shall perish by the sword,” cherev. The word, cherev, however, alliterates with the word, Chorev, meaning, “Mt. Horeb, Mt. Sinai. Based on this alliteration, the ancient rabbis in Midrash Lekach Tov explain the verse this way: The nations of the world that reject the teachings of the Torah you received at Mt. Chorev, shall ultimately perish, “charev.” (Midrash Lekach Tov, Shemot, 3:1:7) Already, therefore, this ancient reading opens a window of possibility for an allegorical interpretation of Isaiah’s speech, one that resonates deeply in today’s troubled world filled with suffering, violence, and oppression of all sorts.
An interior, non-literal reading of this section suggests that the nations are inspired and motivated to offer gold, gems, wood, and an abundance of animals to serve the Creator. According to this reading, the light emerging from Israel illuminates the world with an inner-light, an awareness and inner-illumination, energizing the nations of the world to submit their power and gifts to serve the nigher purpose of humanity with humility and reverence. Indeed, before closing, Isaiah shifts the imagery from donations of abundance by kings to the feminine image of breast feeding the world:
You shall suck the milk of the nations, suckle at royal breasts. And you shall know That I the LORD am your Savior, I, The Mighty One of Jacob, am your Redeemer. Instead of copper I will bring gold, instead of iron I will bring silver; instead of wood, copper; and instead of stone, iron. And I will appoint well-being (“shalom”) as your government, prosperity as your officials. The cry “Violence!” shall no more be heard in your land, nor “Wrack and ruin!” within your borders. And you shall name your walls “Victory” and your gates “Renown.” (60:16-18)
This image is fascinating! The nations of the world will breast-feed Israel. While many commentators see this image as another example of Israel taking wealth from the nations, I see this as the opposite. What relationship could possibly evoke greater dependency, love, and affection than an infant feeding from the breast of the mother? Furthermore, the juxtaposition and shift in voice suggest to me that God here is casting “herself” as the nourishing source, the nourishing mother of all nations. When humanity sees themselves as interconnected, humbled, all serving one Creator, the interdependency between nations becomes manifest and embraced, and all feel wealthy, dignified, safe and secure. The true source of government leadership and power is sustainability, balance, “Shalom.”
What will motivate the nations to regard Israel as the paradigm for human interdependency, balance and well-being, bringing true peace and security to the world? Israel, claims Isaiah, has been selected by the Creator to bring precisely this message to humanity, and he says so by returning to the opening imagery of light in his final verses:
No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; For the LORD shall be your light everlasting, your God shall be your glory. Your sun shall set no more, your moon no more withdraw; for the LORD shall be a light to you forever, and your days of mourning shall be ended. And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; they are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory. The smallest shall become a clan; The least, a mighty nation. I the LORD will speed it in due time. (60:19-22)
Here Isaiah explicitly gives the reader permission to re-interpret the entire speech metaphorically. “Of course I am not speaking only of gold and silver and an abundance of animals and the sovereignty of nations and political power,” Isaiah might explain. The Creator is the true source of light, and a nation radiates that divine light, casting it throughout the world, piercing the darkness, only when that nation is righteous. Righteousness is humanity’s capacity to shine light throughout the world, continuing God’s original act of creation by bringing divine energy into forms of life and existence. The entire world pulsates with that source of divine light, and it becomes Israel’s purpose to release that energy in acts of righteousness. Once humanity experiences that uncompromising devotion to righteousness, enhanced by compassion and giving, acts of oppression, the horrific abuse of power, and the human predisposition to arrogance, will all succumb to a humble devotion to the Creator and the work of creation. So suggests Isaiah, with profound optimism and hope. May such optimism nourish our spirits, even as we continue to witness ongoing pain and oppression throughout the world.