The return from Babylonian exile was enormously challenging. Coming back to a land from which your people had been exiled from two generations earlier – a land that needed to be rebuilt and repopulated must have been mentally, physically and spiritually wearying. The people likely needed God’s backing and support. The haftarah’s message comes to remind them that God was not only aware of their tribulations but that He meant to lend “strength to the weary” and “fresh vigor to the spent”. (40:29). He is also the One who rewards those who believe in Him: “But they who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength as eagles grow new plumes (yaalu eiver kanesharim): They shall run and not grow weary; they shall march and not grow faint.” (40:31)
Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, asserts that this last description describes God’s promise to rescue those loyal to Him from Babylonian exile: “Those who believe in God’s power to redeem, He will gather them from throughout the exile, increase their strength, renew their youth like the new growth on the wings of eagles; they will run and not be weary, they will march and not grow faint.” The Targum draws our attention, in particular, to Isaiah’s remarkable comparison between the renewal of strength and the development of new plumage on the wings of an eagle. Apparently, there was a popular belief in biblical times that eagles regain their youth when they molt. (NJPS p. 937) This same idea is also expressed by the psalmist: “He (God) satisfies you with good things in the prime of life so that your youth is renewed like an eagle.” (103:5)
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) tries to give perspective to this idea. He quotes an otherwise lost explanation of this analogy from Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, the most prominent sage from the period of the Gaonim (9th century Egypt, Eretz Yisrael, Babylonia): “For the eagle (phoenix?) rises up high in the heavens for ten years, approaching the heat of the sun, and then thrusts itself into the ocean because of the great heat, molts its feathers, is renewed afterwards, sprouts wings and is restored to the days of its youth. This happens every ten years until the age of one hundred years. When it reaches one hundred, it rises up and falls into the ocean and dies.”
Saadya’s description of the eagle bears an incredible resemblance to the mythological phoenix, a bird known in the ancient world for its ability to regenerate and reincarnate itself. Saadya apparently seized upon this popular legend and associated it with Isaiah’s “nesher” to produce a symbol of constant renewal. This symbol represented, for Saadya, the fate of the Jewish people in the world. They will perpetually rise up out of the ashes, invigorated with renewed strength to build a future even greater than the past. May Saadya’s vision become our reality.