Parashat Lech Lecha
October 15, 2021
8 Cheshvan 5782
Haftorah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16
This haftorah is about inner strength and the loss of strength. It is about strength lasting in the sense of faith and trustworthiness. In this haftorah the prophet Isaiah offers metaphorical language to describe the kind of inner strength that comes from faith as a way of knowing. This speech describes an epistemology of emunah. Sometimes knowledge is conceptual and abstract. Sometimes we gain knowledge through a lived experience. Isaiah here declares that knowing through faith is a mindset, an intuition about the world we inhabit, a perspective that then interprets everything that happens to us and infuses our experiences with purpose. Finally, this haftorah is about the sense of desperation and anxiety that emerges in the midst of a crisis, resulting in a loss of inner strength as people turn towards idolatry to feel safe.
Isaiah is prophesying in these speeches against idolatry, and makes the point that an idolatrous mindset causes a person to feel that they are living in a godless world. Isaiah senses the spiritual malaise of the Jewish people, and exposes the an underlying feeling of emptiness. He declared:
Why do you say, O Jacob, Why declare, O Israel, “My way is hidden from God, My cause (“mishpati”) is ignored by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? Hashem is God from old, Creator of the earth from end to end, Hahem never grows faint or weary, God’s wisdom cannot be fathomed. God gives strength to the weary, Fresh vigor to the spent. Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who trust (“kovei”) in Hashem shall renew their strength as eagles grow new plumes they shall run and not grow weary, they shall go and not grow faint. (Isaiah 40:27-31)
“Saying” and “hearing” are all modalities of “knowing.” God remains hidden from the consciousness of the people, and the Jewish world is demoralized. The nation is “weary,” their vitality has been “spent.” They have “stumbled,” “fallen.” The only source of vitality and renewal is tikvah, “trust” or “hope,” that which inspires a vision for the future. The image of a molting eagle growing new feathers alludes to the nature of spiritual strength. Living through an intuitive awareness of God’s presence in the world inspires one’s heart and mind to soar without limits. Such a perspective would enable the nation to constantly renew itself, to pick themselves up, to regain its vitality. God’s vitality has endured since creation, from the beginning of time. Embedded within the mystery of God’s infinite, creative power are processes of constant renewal. Isaiah brings an awareness of the power of renewal to the listless neshama of the Jewish people, lost and languishing in a world devoid of spiritual vitality that nourishes life.
Isaiah described the universal God, the Creator of all life. But the worlds God created were filled with cruelty, mendacity, murder, avarice. Despite the first generations having created culture, metallurgy, urbanization, agriculture, and even religion, humanity still filled the world with arrogance and abuse. Neither exile nor floodwaters corrected the nature of human beings, until one neshama emerged. Without naming him at first, Isaiah then describes God’s constant dedication to humanity represented by God’s relationship with Avraham:
Stand silent before Me, coastlands, Let them approach to state their case; let us come forward together for argument. Who has roused a righteous one from the East, Summoned him to God’s service? Has delivered nations to him, and trodden sovereigns down? Has rendered their swords like dust, their bows like wind-blown straw? He pursues them, he goes on unscathed; no shackle is placed on his feet. Who has wrought and achieved this? He who announced the generations from the start— I, the LORD, who was first and will be with the last as well. (Isaiah 41:1-4)
The “righteous one from the East” is Avraham. Rashi makes this explicit: Who aroused Avraham to bring him from Aram which is in the East and the righteousness that he would perform that was opposite his feet wherever he went. Avraham brought an awareness of a shared Creator to the world. No shackle was placed on his [Avraham’s] feet, Rashi explains to mean that the world required a spiritual revolution, with Avraham as the radical, revolutionary spirit: A road upon which he had not come previously with his feet. Avraham paved an untrodden pathway; his journey was not merely a geographical one, but an inner journey, one that constantly brought him back to standing before the Creator of the world. That is the pathway of spiritual renewal, towards a life of vision, purpose, optimism and hope: Avraham saw himself, wherever he walked, as standing before the Creator. Every interaction, every thought, every word, was embraced from this perspective, informing every moment of his life.
Instead of looking inward, however, our people looked only to externalities. They looked outwards for nourishment and renewal, to the material of the world rather than to the intuitions of their own hearts. That’s what idolatry is. Idolatry involves ossification. That process can take hold of an idea, a belief, a profession, a political party, an identity, financial success, or a charismatic personality. People can transform any of these phenomena into an object of worship. Once they have done that, the mystery and multifaceted nature of human experience is reduced to an idol. At that moment, a person is worshipping an idea, another person, their possessions, even themselves. Isaiah saw that the people ignored their knowledge of the Creator. They turned their backs on the power, mystery, and wonder of the world around them. They reduced reality simplistically. They made idols thinking, “THIS is IT!” “This is the symbol of truth.” Without nuance, without diversity, without complexity, the Jewish people favored what they could make, hold, and then worship as the productivity of their own hands. Isaiah described this development concretely by naming the artisans designing and manufacturing the idols themselves:
The coastlands look on in fear, The ends of earth tremble. They draw near and come; each [artisan] helps the other, Saying to his fellow, “Take courage!” The woodworker encourages the smith; one who flattens with the hammer [encourages] him who pounds the anvil. He says of the riveting, “It is good!” And he fixes it with nails, so that it may not topple. (41:5-7)
Ibn Ezra, 12th century Spain, sets the moment into historical context: the nations are terrified of the power of the Persian Empire. They hurry to form military alliances against the advances of Cyrus. In that effort, they forge new idols together to protect themselves: All islands, all men, and all nations are now more anxious to worship idols, believing that they can thus be delivered out of the hands of Cyrus. (Ibn Ezra, Isaiah 41:5) By contextualizing Isaiah’s speech, Ibn Ezra highlighted a tendency to let go of complexity and reduce one’s perception of reality to a singular image. Yes, the nations worshipped many different idols, and they tolerated each other’s pantheons of gods. But each world view proved to be reductionist, an oversimplification of experience.
This happens when people are terrified. The nations were terrified of Cyrus. In our world, people are terrified of difference. They are terrified of losing their status or their money. They are terrified of the unknown. They are terrified of change. They are terrified of the truth, of thinking critically and looking at the many realities that were part of the creation of the United States of America. They remain terrified to acknowledge the complex experiences of both Jews and Arabs in the creation of the State of Israel. So instead of relying on the intuitive knowledge God gifted us, people build idols. The Jewih people, Isaiah reminds us, have a “myth of origin,” a story that informs who we were and who we always must keep becoming. Our identity, Isaiah concludes powerfully, rests on the journey and knowledge bequeathed to us by Avraham Avinu, our Patriarch, Avraham:
But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, Seed of Avraham, My beloved— You whom I drew from the ends of the earth and called from its far corners, to whom I said: You are My servant; I chose you, I have not rejected you— fear not, for I am with you, be not frightened, for I am your God; I strengthen you and I help you, I uphold you with My righteous right hand. (41:8-10)
“Dig down deep inside of you,” said the Malbim, Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser , 19th century Ukraine, “…lest you not find Avraham, God’s beloved, inside of you in the midst of a crisis of fear….” (41:8) Our source of strength is to continue to know what Avraham knew, to rely on that knowledge, the intuitive understanding that the world is complex, that there is a mystery behind all of creation, and that we can live our lives with the mindset and from the perspective of building a relationship with that Creator of All. Once that relationship becomes our frame of reference, we can manage our fears without abandoning the values of righteousness, compassion, and a love of the world God created. That perspective recognizes that life is more complex than we might like, but it also enables us to appreciate the holiness all around us.