2021/5782Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
(according to Nusah haSepharadim v’’edot hamizrach)
This Devar Torah is dedicated to the blessed memory and lifework of my dear friend, Chaya Gorsetman, z”l, Chaya bat Azriel v’Naomi, who sadly left this world for that one. Chaya’s love of family, passion and fierce understanding of children, her penetrating insights into human personalities, her deep love of God and the spirit that animates the world, survive and nourish all who knew her. May those gifts surpass the turbulent waters of sadness surrounding so many in the wake of God’s decision to take Chaya at this time from the world we know. יהא זכרה ברוך
This haftorah is about loss and hope. It is about the possibility of transcending our ever-changing realities in order to feel nourished by the eternal power and vitality of love. Isaiah opens by describing the people of Israel as a woman. From these few verses, all the passions and turbulences of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, between husband and wife, unfold. Israel’s exile from the land, loss of sovereignty and independence, loss of dignity and productivity, are all compared to infertility. Her barrenness was caused by her husband abandoning her, enraged by her infidelity:
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, do not hold back! 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. 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 He who made you will espouse you— His name is “LORD of Hosts.” The Holy One of Israel will redeem you— He is called “God of all the Earth.” The LORD has called you back as a wife forlorn and forsaken. Can one cast off the wife of his youth? —said your God. For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I will bring you back. 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. (Isaiah 54:1-8)
We do not know, from this speech, the exact cause of God’s alienation from Israel, but she, Israel, remained alone, unable to bear children, bereft, therefore, of a future.
However, God clearly has a different sense of the passing of time. The generations of exile, suffering, abandonment and despair were but a fleeting moment in God’s divine eyes when compared to the eternal love and compassion of the original romance. No momentary failing could extinguish God’s past love for the Jewish people. The yearning for rekindling that love nourished and nourishes the relationship’s future.
It is precisely to convey the eternality of God’s love for Israel that the prophet Isaiah then references the great flood:
For this to Me is like the waters of Noah, as I swore that the waters of Noah would nevermore 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. (Isaiah 54:9-10)
Love conquers desolation, it overcomes the floodgates of rage and alienation. The spirit and passion of love and devotion and affection and friendship survive the traumas that inevitably challenge the stability of every relationship, including the relationship between the Creator and the Jewish people. This truth as a lived experience of the Jewish people also serves as a paradigm for humanity, generating the optimism that a world filled with the passion of authentic love–including all of its demands, expectations, disappointments, and turbulences–outlasts the tragic sadness of loss.
The ancient rabbis developed this idea powerfully in a midrashic explication of Isaiah’s statement to our people. Isaiah, as God’s mouthpiece, declared here that the woman who is suffering from abandonment and loss, bereft of children, shall in the end have a future that will surpass others who have not suffered such despair and darkness. From that quote, the midrash moves to describe the destruction of God’s sanctuary on earth, asserting that although the physical structure is gone, its sanctity remains:
״For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused.״ Rabbi Abba bar Kahana quotes the following verse from the Song of Songs, [in order to explain the statement by the prophet Isaiah]: [Said the lover to his beloved] “Your mouth is so lovely….” [The word, midbarech, “your mouth,” alliterates as a homonym with the word, “midbarech,” “your wilderness.” In other words, [love and devotion remain] even when one’s pasture is turned into a wasteland. We remain committed to God’s sanctuary, to the area that held that sanctity, to the place that held our companionship and devotion and love, even when its physical presence has been destroyed, just as when the structure was built and standing. (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 20:5)
The rabbis are teaching us to reach past the physical structures that define sacred time and space. The Hebrew text of the midrash uses the word, mechitzato, literally, “God’s partitions,” to emphasize the limitations of loss and to push us to transcend it. The walls are gone. The sanctuary has been forsaken. The building is no more. The doors are closed. The structures are no longer standing. But what animates the spirit of life, what nourishes and stimulates and enables us to feel hopeful about the future, lies beyond the physicality, as much as we yearn to re-enter those precincts. The possibility of recapturing the passions and loves of one’s youth, the fact that God still believes in humanity despite every possible ill-informed decision and cruelty people continue to perpetuate, give us hope that the loves of our past can still nourish our lives for the future. Hope, teaches this midrash, is the spiritual elixir that helps us overcome the loss. May this remain true both for our people, as well as for each of us in our concrete, specific lives.