Gidon Rothstein

Yeshayahu 40; 12- 21: Hashem’s Power and the Power of Denial

As we continue our discussion of the first chapter of Yeshayahu’s consolation, three themes recur: Hashem’s power (His ability to do whatever He wants, including redeem the Jews), prophets’ unique access to information about Hashem, and the ramifications of non-Jews both not having such access and refusing to react properly to that fact.

Hashem, prophets, and non-Jews. The lessons of each are so difficult to absorb that Yeshayahu says it several times in several ways. I will try not to repeat myself, even as I try to convey the content and the import of Yeshayahu’s message.

Incomparable Power

Verse twelve speaks of Hashem measuring the waters of the earth in His metaphorical fist, fixing the heavens with a handspan, and so on with all creation. R. Sa’adya Gaon reads each clause as implying a question: if the heavens are like a handspan, how hard could it be for Hashem to send prophecy? If all the waters of the world are like a handful, how hard could it be for Hashem to gather our exiles? If Hashem could weigh the mountains of the world on a scale, how hard could it be to rebuild the Beit haMikdash?

R. Sa’adya Gaon wrote HaEmunot veHaDeot in the middle of the 10th century, more than a thousand years ago. Even back then, he understood Yeshayahu (whose prophecy occurred 150 years before the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash) to be trying to convey to his listeners just how inconceivable Hashem is. His questions R suggest that already by his time, some could not imagine prophecy, or an ingathering of the exiles, or a rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.

It is not our times that fuel disbelief, in other words, it is the difficulty of belief. Accepting Hashem’s power requires that we be willing to assert as true that which is literally inconceivable for us—we don’t and can’t know what it means to say that the waters of earth are like a handful for Hashem (especially since Hashem doesn’t have a body). And that’s why it’s hard to believe in prophecy, because we don’t and can’t know how a human being could communicate directly with Hashem.

Aides and Challenges to Belief

In our times, belief in the ingathering of the exiles might be easier, since we’ve seen it for Jews from Arab countries (in the early days of the State, when hundreds of thousands came in a short period of time), from Ethiopia, from Russia, and were absorbed into the country.  Do we let those events impact us, increase our faith that Hashem is orchestrating events, with even better times to come? R. Sa’adya is telling us that Yeshayahu was asking us to realize that nothing is beyond Hashem.

Rashi also focuses on being able to believe that Hashem will fulfill all His promises, and Radak adds that non-Jewish nations take for granted that the Jewish exile will be permanent, having gotten used to Jews in their midst. In an important phrase, he says fools believe only in that which they can see (which perfectly describes the views of many today, who only accept evidence-based truths). Yeshayahu was telling them that they were setting themselves up for a surprise, since Hashem has more than enough power to redeem the Jews.

So, a first step: remembering, accepting, and absorbing that we cannot speak of that which is beyond Hashem’s power. If we find ourselves or others wavering in their belief in the promised future, it is a sign of forgetting that Hashem’s power is incomparable, that nothing is too “hard” for Hashem.

The Way to Hear from Hashem

Given the distance between us and Hashem, how can we gain access to what Hashem thinks or wants? Verse thirteen speaks of whom Hashem has fixed with His spirit, with whom Hashem has chosen to inform of His counsel. Rashi and Torat haMincha (R. Ya’acov Skili, a student of Rashba in 14th century Spain) read Yeshayahu as telling us that Hashem has invested His counsel in the prophets, whom we should therefore trust.

To me, that is a point easily and mistakenly passed over. Oh sure, we think, we believe in what the prophets say. That’s not been my experience in discussions with many Jews, including Orthodox ones.

Verses fourteen and fifteen point out that there are no other places to find that information. As Rashi interprets verse fourteen, Hashem is reminding us that He never consulted with other nations the way He did with Avraham (before destroying Sodom), and never taught other nations the proper ways to live, as with Avraham (in Bereshit 18, the Torah says the reason to tell Avraham about Sodom was that it was part of readying him to pass the ways of righteousness and justice on to his descendants).

Non-Jews’ Resistance to the Truth, and Its Consequences

For Rashi, verse fifteen says much the same, that non-Jews refuse to recognize Hashem (a theme that will recur).  Radak instead sees this as echoing another theme he sees in this chapter, that non-Jews will think they can stop Hashem from taking the Jews out of exile, when they are really a drop in the bucket (the metaphor in the verse, not my stale phrasing) compared to Hashem.  Both agree their lack of belief incurs liability, requiring absolution, for which there isn’t enough wood in Lebanon (where they have cedars) or animals in the world. Lack of belief will not be atonable through sacrifice.

Part of what’s interesting about reading this chapter is how we hear it every year and yet how little of it we have absorbed.  How many of us are convinced that Hashem’s power is such that anything is possible? How many of us are convinced that the words of the prophets are the only avenue we have to know what Hashem wants of us? How many of us are convinced that non-Jews’ refusal to accept Hashem as Hashem has presented Himself (meaning, at the very least, recognizing the Jews’ as Hashem’s special people, to whom Hashem gave the Land of Israel) incurs a need for forgiveness and absolution.

Be careful how you answer, because in the chapters to come, we will see promises of salvation and redemption that I know from having taught them before can strike many fine upstanding Jews as literally unbelievable.

Non-Jews’ Insistent Attempts to Create Alternatives

Verse seventeen speaks of the nations’ insignificance, and the following verses tell us why. Before we get to them, I find it interesting that Devarim Rabbah and Sanhedrin 39b take this to mean that Hashem really doesn’t care about other nations. Devarim Rabbah to Ekev says that even though rain falls on their fields, and they have produce, fruit, and peace, it’s all in the merit of the Jewish people. Sanhedrin compares the world to a field whose farmer waters the whole of it, but only tends to the good parts. (Which has implications for how we conceive of Divine Providence for the non-Jewish nations, but is not our topic.)

For these Talmudic sources, the non-Jews as they were then constituted managed to make themselves unimportant to Hashem. To test whether we would see that as still applicable today, we need to see what it is that makes them that way.

Verse eighteen speaks of the impossibility of comparing anything to Hashem, and Radak interprets that as saying that the non-Jews (whom he has been looking at in terms of their openness to the possibility of Hashem redeeming the Jews) assume that just as their gods have no real power, so too Hashem could not save the Jews.

Misplaced Religiosity

The next verses support Radak’s reading, since they speak of the process of producing idols, a metalworker casting it, a goldsmith plating it, and so on. In verse twenty, the person who is too poor for that will seek some wood that will not rot, find a skilled craftsman to set it up well and lastingly. Verse 21 protests the blindness in this activity, since there are multiple ways to come to realize that that is not what established the world.

Before we get there, I note Devarim Rabbah Va-Etchanan’s image of a poor person, who has no money for a metal idol. Even to build a wooden one, he has to save day by day, slowly accruing the needed funds.

What I find so poignant is that this is a deeply religious person, yet all that religious fervor is being misdirected, worse than wasted.  We should be careful not to do that ourselves, to use our religious energies in ways opposite to what Hashem wants.

They Should Know Better, As Should We

Verse 21 questions how the non-Jews can do this, since they should know, or have heard, or have a tradition about the foundations of the world (and that tradition points to Hashem as Creator). Interestingly, Ibn Ezra assumes the most important way to know this is by our own intellects, which he thought would lead to a recognition of Hashem (Rambam, too, assumed that logic led to belief in a Creator; obviously, people around us have advanced in their logic to the point that they now know that it does not force belief in Hashem).

Radak pauses here to discuss idolatry. He gives the view many know from Ramban’s later formulation, that idolaters thought they could invest their idols with the spirit of the stars, which in their view ran the world. We today dismiss the idea of stars having a role in running the world, but if we remember that Radak thought idolaters thought Hashem delegated running the world to the stars, their view isn’t far from some modern conceptions, if we substitute nature for stars.

Radak goes on to say that people didn’t bother to think about Hashem (once they had their idols) because they assumed that the world as they saw it was as it is, was, and will be. Since they couldn’t see any guiding Hand or power behind the world, and their forefathers lived well without a belief in Hashem, why should they change?

He also gives the analogy of someone who grows up on an estate, whose ancestors have all lived on that estate. The tradition is that they are only the caretakers of the estate, but the owner never shows up. A fool would treat that estate as his own, eat and drink with abandon, without considering the wishes of the owner. For Radak, that’s how people act: they take account only of what they see now, they assume that what they see now is what has always been (so, to give an example of my own: since they’ve never seen a Giving of the Torah, they deny it happened), leading them to focus on how to build a life within the world they see, ignoring Hashem.

Closing with Hashem’s Power

Verses 22-24, with which we’ll close, return to stressing Hashem’s power. I won’t repeat myself, but part of the point of repetition in Navi is that it drives the message home more effectively. When we always look for new content, repetition bores us. But truth that flows over us, over and over, has a better chance of penetrating (if our intake drains are clogged, we may need to let the waters of life sit in those drains longer, so that they can seep through).

I once heard a business school professor tell a group of educators that to have people hear you one time, you have to say it ten times (he then repeated himself three or four times, to get the point across). There is that element in Yeshayahu’s prophecies as well.

As I said, I won’t replicate that here. What is new in these verses is the metaphor of Hashem sitting way above the world, as if its inhabitants were grasshoppers, spreading the Heavens thinly (which Tanchuma Tsav 16 reads as another way of emphasizing Hashem’s ability to do that which we find inconceivable; and, yes, the word means what I think it means).

Verse 23 speaks of Hashem’s negating princes and rulers, nullifying their power completely. Again, a message we still need to hear today: how many of us are confident that the combined power of China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and the US would be nothing for Hashem? Do we remember that we engage in international politics on its own terms because we are not allowed to rely on miracles, and certainly have no way to assume we are worthy of miracles, or do we fall into the trap of thinking that’s all there is? When people say this or that political course is the only way to go, do we mentally insert, “as long as Hashem is not stepping in in obvious ways”?)

Kohelet Rabbah 8 thinks that even Moshe Rabbenu fell into this trap. When Moshe tells the judges that he will deal with the hard questions, Hashem brings him the question of the daughters of Tslophad, to show him that his self-confidence was misplaced. Remembering Hashem and the limitless possibilities that come with that reality is a challenge even for the greatest among us.

The last verse speaks of their being blown away so fully that it will be as if they were never planted.  All the mighties of the earth, so certain they know how it works, so certain of their power, will come to realize how wrong they were.

The sooner we absorb these messages, the sooner we will get to the comfort of the chapters to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.