Parashat Ki Tetzei
Haftorah: Isaiah 54:1-10
In this week’s haftorah of consolation, Isaiah offers three images of hope for the renewal of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The first three verses describe the fertility of a barren wife. The central four verses describe the rekindling of romantic passion between the abandoned wife and the enraged husband, and the closing verses project cosmic implications of this paradigm of renewal. One might have thought that the prophet would have first described the reconciliation between spouses, then the fertility of the couple, but Isaiah reverses that sequence. Perhaps this serves as a literary device, compelling the reader to wonder about the relationship in the first place, and remain engaged by the prophecy. It is powerful to note, in addition, that perhaps Isaiah wanted to foreground the most vivifying experience of hope, namely, fertility, the bringing of new life into the world. This sequence suggests that human beings gain a deep sense of purpose by producing, nourishing, raising, caring for and loving new life, even beyond the nourishment one feels from the love and commitment of a spouse in a reconciled marriage.
The prophet opens with this proclamation to the Jewish people:
Shout, O barren one, You who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, You who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn Shall outnumber those of the espoused —said the LORD. Enlarge the site of your tent, Extend the size of your dwelling, Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm. For you shall spread out to the right and the left; Your offspring shall dispossess nations And shall people the desolate towns. (54:1-3)
Rashi clarified that the “espoused” refers to Edom. Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel explained the imagery referring to the depopulation of Jerusalem. The surrounding nations have populated, thriving cities, while Jerusalem, the forlorn and childless wife and mother, remains childless, bereft of people. The Abrabanel also explained the term, “barren” in several ways. The Hebrew, ‘aqara means barren in the sense just described. It also has the meaning of “uproot.” The Abrabanel quotes a midrash explaining that Isaiah was describing the uprooting of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, dispersing the people in lands of exile. This image of an abandoned wife, a woman without a husband, then alludes to an unstable society, one without a “husband,” meaning, without a king. Extrapolating from this imagery, I understand Isaiah’s message to be directed at a Jewish people without leadership, without sovereignty, without a land, exiled without the ingredients for stability and prosperity enjoyed by all of the surrounding nations. Not only is this condition temporary, claims Isaiah, but the new tent will be wider than ever.
Not only will we grow in numbers, but in stability, with the passion and commitment reminiscent of the earliest days of the relationship between husband and wife when they were first falling in love:
Fear not, you shall not be shamed; Do not cringe, you shall not be disgraced. For you shall forget the reproach of your youth, and remember no more the shame of your widowhood. For the One who made you will espouse you— God’s name is “LORD of Hosts.” The Holy One of Israel will redeem you— God is called “God of all the Earth.” God has called you back as a wife forlorn and forsaken. Can one cast off the wife of one’s youth? —said your God. For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I will bring you back. (54:4-7)
The exile of the Jewish people, claims Isaiah, in the larger scheme of history, is but a painful period of alienation, anger and disappointment between spouses. However, never doubt the longevity of the relationship; the memories and feelings of love remain so powerful, that they will re-emerge from their latency more powerful than ever.
Of course, these images are both challenging and inspiring in today’s world. Do relationships really stand on such firm foundations? Isaiah understands that a committed relationship, one that is of covenantal meaning and depth, will inevitably suffer painful moments of shame, regret, frustration, disappointment, rage, and alienation. He understands that permanent relationships undergo extended moments of distancing that can challenge one’s feeling of confidence. Isaiah is claiming that an authentically covenantal relationship is never broken, that faith in the relationship authenticates its nature and permanence in the face of the most grave challenges. Where do we see such commitment today? Certainly not in governments and leadership internationally. The world seems beset by relationships characterized by power and abuse, by cultures that continually justify how one population will control another: men controlling women, majorities controlling minorities, one religion vying for power over another. Yet, Isaiah is claiming that as a paradigm for humanity, the Jewish people must rediscover their primordial feelings of love and commitment from the Creator of the universe. That is our spiritual gift to humanity, that despite eras of alienation, abuse, brokenness and oppression, ultimately humanity was created by a Creator who can teach us to fill the world with love and compassion. Indeed, the love between God and the Jewish people is a model for God’s universal, cosmic promise to the world from the time of the great flood:
In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; but with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love —said the LORD your Redeemer. For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you. For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken, but my loyalty shall never move from you, nor My covenant of friendship be shaken —said the LORD, who takes you back in love. (54:8-10)
Ultimately, Isaiah is describing not only an external relationship, but an inner one landscape as well. Inside each person is the capacity to renew broken relationships, to leave shame behind and overcome the consequences of rage and alienation, to rekindle the loves that humanity should share with each other. May this message be taken to heart as we continue to prepare for and anticipate Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur, celebrations of the world’s capacity to change and return to the foundations of our humanity.