In this, the fifth of the seven haftarah of consolation (shiva d’nechamta), the prophet offers a message of encouragement to a forlorn people who have suffered the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of its children: “Shout O barren one, you who have born no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who have shown no travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused, said the Lord.” (Isaiah 54:1)
The Jerusalem that greeted the returning exiles was desolate and deserted. The metaphor of the “forlorn wife” befitted its condition. One can only imagine the reaction of the exiles, who had heard of the city’s past glory, when they saw how its magnificence (“the espoused wife”) had been reduced to a hovel. The prophet promises that out of this neglect and hopelessness would blossom a greatness and abundance well beyond what existed before. (See S. Paul, Isaiah chapters 40-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 379-80)
Earlier commentators read this verse quite differently. They saw this prophecy as a promise that Israel would ultimately be greater than its enemies (each commentator filling in the relevant enemy). For Targum Yonathan (7th century Eretz Yisrael) it was the Romans: “For the children of Jerusalem, the desolate, shall outnumber the children of Rome, the inhabited.” For Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence), it was the nations of the world.
The following midrash offers a counterintuitive reading of this comparison: Said Rabbi Levi: ‘When the Temple was standing, it brought forth for Me (God) wicked men, like Ahaz, Manasseh, and Amon (wicked kings), yet when it was destroyed, it raised up for Me righteous men, like Daniel and his friends, Mordechai and his friends, Ezra and his friends.’ Rabbi Aba bar Kahana in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: ‘Of Rabbi Levi, Scripture said: “for greater were the children of the desolate than the children of the settled”, namely: ‘When the Temple was desolate, the nation brought forth many more righteous people than when it was standing.’ (Adapted from Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:4:9)
Rabbi Levi identified the “espoused wife” with the built Temple and the intact nation, while the “forlorn wife”, he identified with the destroyed Temple and exiled nation. His message seems to be that tranquility and prosperity often produce corruption, while adversity builds character. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (the Sefat Emet – 19th-20th century Poland), spiritualized this message. He concluded that prosperity often causes ostentatious behavior which is destructive, while adversity causes a person to repair his or her ways. The challenges of adversity are a source of spiritual inwardness and moral growth. (See Sefat Emet Parshat Ki Tetze 5651)
May we be blessed with only the spiritual gifts born of redemption and prosperity as they are understood in a more conventional reading of Isaiah and, if need be (Heaven forbid), may we discover these same gifts in any adversity we might suffer.