Getting at the exact meaning of Scripture is often a daunting task. Sometimes the meaning of a certain words is difficult to ascertain. At other times, figuring out the exact context of a verse is a problem. Similarly, determining the historical circumstances of a passage can also raise difficulties. It is as if it is a religious obligation to wrestle with the text and make ourselves active participants in revealing its meaning.
In this week’s haftarah, the third of the seven special haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nehamta) which follow Tisha b’Av, Isaiah’s prophecy includes an obscure verse: “Surely no harm can be done (gor yagur) without My (God’s) consent (efes mei-otee): whoever would harm you (gar eetah) shall fall because of you.” (54:15) (I have cited here the NJPS translation for convenience sake.)
Clearly, the English translation here is no less enigmatic than the Hebrew! Two questions present themselves: 1. How should “gor yagur” be understood? 2. What is the meaning of “efes mei-otee”?
Our first question involves interpreting the word “gor” (gimel, vav, reish). Three possibilities are cited: 1. sojourn or dwell; 2. gather together to quarrel or do harm; 3. dread or fear. The above translation adopted the second definition of this word, but as we will see, each of these definitions has been utilized by one commentator or another.
Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, offers a variation on the above interpretation: “When the exiles of your people shall gather together unto you (Jerusalem); the enemies of your people will gather to do you harm – Jerusalem, but in your midst your enemies will fall.” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) hones close to the Targum’s interpretation but adds his own nuance based on the phrase “efes me-otee”: “The enemies that will gather against Israel [at the end of time], namely, Gog and Magog, will not come at My [God’s] behest but rather on their own, unlike other times when I [God] sent nations for Israel’s own good to chasten them. This time vengeance will be taken upon them for God’s glory.” (Adapted translation) A modern scholar, A. Ehrlich (19th-20th century Germany, United States), also put himself in this camp: “A nation which wages war without My (God’s) authorization, will ultimately accompany you (join your ranks?).” (Mikra Kipeshuto, Prophets, p. 128) Ehrlich’s interpretation gives this verse a modern universalist twist. The essential promise here is that the nation will be saved from those who wish to do it harm.
Rashi interprets this verse by defining “gur” as “fear: “They [the enemies of Israel] shall surely fear for I am not with them.” A Hacham (Israel, 20th century) offers a variation on this interpretation: “It is fitting that no one should fear [from anything] except from Me [God]; is there anyone among you [in Jerusalem] who fears that enemies will fall upon you?” (Isaiah, Daat Mikra, pp. 585-6) If correct, this understanding was intended to instill confidence in the fear-laden returning exiles who while frightened stayed loyal to God. Hacham might also have seen these words as a source of strength for his contemporaries in Israel.
Rabbi Joseph Kara, a contemporary of Rashi, adopted the first definition of “gur”, namely, “to dwell”: “Those who surely dwell among you, even though they have fallen away from God, namely, those who dwell among you and have been exiled along with you, they also shall ultimately dwell together with you in Jerusalem. Who are these? This refers to converts.” (Adapted translation) The basis for this understanding is found in a Talmudic passage which learns from this verse that converts should only be accepted to the Jewish people in troubled times so that their loyalty can be established. (See Yevamot 24b) Kara envisions the redemption to include all who are truly inspired by God’s spirit.
This wide variation in interpretations have a common thread. They offer comfort and optimism in troubled times, two sorely needed commodities for people to carry on with life and build a positive future.