Who is to Blame, You or God? (Isaiah 49:14-51:3)

In the second of the seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nehamta), the prophet addresses the nation’s insecurity over feeling abandoned by God. Will the exile end or won’t it? Does God remember His people or doesn’t He? Isaiah responded to the people’s doubts by comparing the nation’s relationship to God to that of a mother and her child. The prophet argues that a mother is unlikely to forget her child, but still, such a possibility exists; God, however, would never abandon His chosen nation since the nation’s memory is, figuratively, engraved on God’s hand. The prophet then illustrates God’s commitment in these words: “Your children (banaikh) hasten [to return]; those who ravaged you, destroyed you shall leave.” (49:17) According to this reading, the children of the exile will rush to return, while the nation’s enemies would quickly depart. For a beleaguered nation, no promise could be greater evidence of God’s redemptive powers. This interpretation was accepted by almost all of the medieval Jewish commentators as the plain meaning (pshat) of this verse.

The above translation draws a comparison between the returning exiles in its first clause and the departing enemies in the second clause. Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, apparently found this comparison awkward. Instead, it built its translation on the fact that the word “banaikh – your children” with a change in vocalization can be read “bonaikh – your builders”: “Swiftly they will rebuild your ruins; those who have ravaged and destroyed you, shall leave.” This way builders restore what the destroyers ravaged.

In the above two interpretations, the “children” or “builders” serve as an antidote to the “ravagers and destroyers”. The Tanhuma (9th century midrash, Eretz Yisrael) reads this verse in a radically different way: “One finds that heavenly Jerusalem is parallel to earthly Jerusalem. On account of the great love [on high] for earthly Jerusalem, [God] made heavenly Jerusalem, as it is written: ‘On the palms of My hands, your walls are forever before Me.’ (Isaiah 49:16) Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Since ‘from your children, your ravagers and your destroyers came forth’.” (Tanhuma Pekudei 1) For this midrash, the second clause of our verse comes to define the first clause, namely, the children are themselves the destroyers! The onus for Jerusalem’s destruction then, lies squarely in the hands of the God’s children rather than in God’s hands.

Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel’s (15th century Portugal, Spain and Italy) interpretation hones closely to that offered by the midrash: “The children of Zion quickly forgot their land when God forgot it (when He exiled them), for among those [who were exiled] were wicked people who had no love for the Holy Land and its ruins. This is what is meant when it says that I [God] remember ‘the ravagers’ and ‘the destroyers’ who came forth from you, namely, they are the cause of the destruction of the land and the Temple.” Abrabanel adds: “Others interpret that: “these ravagers and destroyers will disappear from Israel before the coming redemption” (Adapted from commentary to 49:17)

Abrabanel was a government minister at the time of the expulsion from Spain. It was a hard time to be Jewish. It seems that his words are a not so subtle critique of those who did not maintain a positive Jewish self-image in facing this persecution. The real enemy, he seems to say, are not those who persecute the Jews; rather it is the Jew who internalizes what others say and turn it into self-hatred. It is these who bring God bitterness and despair. The Jewish tradition has never shied away from self-critique but there is a difference between self-critique and self-loathing. The real “destroyers”, says Abrabanel, are those who want to tear down rather than build up. God’s greatest allies or His greatest enemies are to be found in the same place – all one needs to do is look in the mirror.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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