Parashat Vaetchanan Shabbat Nachamu 2021/5781 Haftorah: Isaiah 40:1-26
There are seven haftarot from the prophecies of Isaiah beginning with the Shabbat following Tisha b’Av until Rosh Hashannah. In these selections, Isaiah consoles the Jewish people. The catastrophe of the destruction of the Mikdash and the exile from Jerusalem, of banishment from the land of Israel and ultimately the loss of Jewish sovereignty, does not extinguish hope for a redemptive future and a repairing of the relationship between God and humanity.
Haftarat Nachamu is a creation narrative. Like the creation narratives at the beginning of Genesis, Isaiah is profoundly universalistic. The Jewish people, our lived experiences, our sinful and misguided behaviors, and our eternal relationship with God as Creator, form a paradigm of hope for all humanity. The signposts of the selection’s literary structure indicated by open and closed units (petuchot and sedumot) suggest seven sections. An analysis of Isaiah’s imagery and the relationship between the sections reveals how the prophet constructs a narrative for consolation and hope.
God opens by declaring: I am not angry with you anymore. The consequences of your misbehavior have been fulfilled. (40:1-2) As Isaiah had foretold repeatedly, human sin forces God into exile, and a world bereft of God’s presence leaves humanity in a dangerous and vulnerable state. Therefore, the first message of consolation brings the tidings of God’s presence filling the earth. Isaiah uses topographic imagery: clear pathways through the wilderness, level the crests of mountains and raise the valleys, for humanity shall see God’s kavod, “presence.” There are three striking aspects of this opening section. First, God’s presence will appear not only for the Jewish people, but before all people as one, integrated humanity (kol basar yachdav). Next, this will be a visual experience not because God inhabits a physical presence, but because the world had been suffering as a result of God’s hiddenness. Therefore, consolation comes in the form of a revelation, niglah. (v.5) Third, Isaiah conveys the metaphysical truth of God’s presence made manifest through a physical, topographical description of a new, re-created world.
Isaiah then develops these three motifs: the re-creation of the physical world, the revelation of God’s presence throughout the world, and the hope for a future shared by all humanity. Isaiah compares human beings to flowers in a field. Grass and flowers flourish; fields remain verdun until God blows on them, causing them to wither. The natural world, including human beings, are part of a mysterious rhythm and cycle of creation. Mortality is part of that cycle, forever distinguishing between the human and the divine. (v. 6-8) Then, the imagery shifts. New life will accompany God’s presence, supported, safe and protected as a flock by its shepherd. Mortality is not a punishment. Mortality signifies the finite nature of an individual life, like a single blade of grass. Humanity, as part of the created world, endures in a rhythmic, ecological cycle. Living within those natural rhythms, declares Isaiah, is like a shepherd carrying the lambs of the flock, holding them close, and offering direction to the mothers nursing their kids. (v. 9-11) Ibn Ezra explained this metaphor in terms of healing: God will gather together those who had been suffering and broken [like the shepherd gathering the lambs of the flock.] Isaiah had also described the image of the shepherd/God appearing in strength, with a mighty hand. Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel interpreted this strength as a metaphor evoking an intimate, loving relationship between shepherd and flock. The shepherd, asserted Abrabanel, owns this flock; the shepherd is not a hired hand. The shepherd’s strength flows from the intimacy, compassion and love the shepherd feels for the flock. The eyes and heart of the shepherd are on the flock as the shepherd picks up the weak and vulnerable lambs and holds them close. (v.10) Those same pastures that naturally wither also nourish the lambs to strength and health. All these interdependencies are manifestations of how God wills the world to work.
Next, Isaiah asserts God’s absolute power over all of creation. Accepting humanity’s place in the rhythmic cycles of the natural world evokes humility. Yet, God knows human nature and our predisposition to arrogance, so he poses a series of rhetorical questions:
Who measured the waters with the hollow of God’s hand, and gauged the skies with a span, and meted earth’s dust with a measure, and weighed the mountains with a scale and the hills with a balance? Who has plumbed the mind of the LORD, what human could tell God the divine plan? Whom did God consult, and who taught God, guided God in the way of right? Who guided God in knowledge and showed God the path of wisdom? The nations are but a drop in a bucket, reckoned as dust on a scale; God lifts the coastlines like motes. (v.12-16)
The wonder of creation remains mysterious. God’s presence fills the earth, revealed in the order of creation. When human beings filled the earth with cruelty, pain and suffering, God withdrew. Hope and consolation return in the form of re-entering the rhythms of creation by feeling both embraced and awe-inspired by the majesty and power of nature. God’s creative power to endow life defies description.
Isaiah describes idolatry to make this point explicit. Usually, idolatry is the cardinal sin of disloyalty. Here, however, Isaiah describes the fashioning of an idol to depict the paucity of the human imagination. The best human depiction of the divine is the form of a well-crafted idol! (v. 17-20) Humanity’s redemption emerges by recognizing God as the Creator of the entire world with a power beyond our imagination. The world has the chance of being redeemed if people could live in a state of radical awareness, in a state of awe. God, after all, is the One who stretched the heavens like a tent, covering the vault of the earth. (v. 22) Human power is no greater than those blades of grass: The…rulers of the earth are nothing. Hardly are they planted, hardly are they sown, hardly has their stem taken root in earth, and when God blows upon them they dry up, and the storm bears them off like straw. (v. 23-24) God created the world as a garden and planted humanity there. We have created social and political worlds. It is as if Isaiah is saying: if people would only build governments and societies on the integrated, balanced, rhythmic model of creation, humanity would remain humble, leaders would not become arrogant and intoxicated by greed and a lust for power, they would be humbled by awe, and God’s presence would remain manifest throughout the world. Such a mindset will not resolve all of the global economic, social and cultural tensions, but it might serve to mind people that humanity ultimately is best served by the humble recognition that we are stewards of a divine gift.
The universality of this haftorah remains astounding as the first response to the suffering and exile of the Jewish people. The prophecy of consolation and hope aspires to a fully integrated world, a wholeness in which the alignment between the human and natural worlds fulfills God’s cosmic aspiration to become fully present. That is a redemptive hope for a world without the fragmentation that results from oppression, cruelty and exploitation. God again calls upon people to look and see, to recognize that humanity, too, has an identity and purpose, analogous to every other individual phenomenon in the natural world that God discerns and names: Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these? God who sends out their host by count, who calls them each by name: because of God’s great might and vast power, not one fails to appear. (v. 26) Ultimately, God offers consolation in the form of a wholeness of being and sense of purpose in the larger scheme of creation. In kabbalistic terms, God promises the possibility of shelemut, wholeness, following the fragmentation of war brought about by human arrogance. Rabbi Moshe David Valle, 18th century Italy, in his kabbalistic commentary on Isaiah called, Teshu’at Olamim, wrote: Once the fragments of sparks of energy have been collected to repair God’s presence in the world, a cosmic coupling can occur, for there will no longer be [any human behaviors that would inhibit the completeness of the divine presence in the world. That moment would be as if] the divine said to humanity, God’s beloved, in tenderness and love, “You are so beautiful, my love, I see no blemish in you.” (v. 26) In the spirit of Isaiah, it is never to late to reimagine humanity’s place in the world, and our relationships to each other.